Dalhousie Law Journal


International Commission for the Northwest Atlantic Fisheries, conservation, fishery diplomacy, experiment


From the sixteenth to the middle of the twentieth century the classical legal doctrine of the freedom of the high seas permitted the continuance of unregulated marine fisheries. At least beyond the narrow limits of the coastal state's territorial sea, the fisherman was generally recognized as free to ply his trade in whatever manner and to any extent he chose. Though disagreements about fishery matters were common in international diplomacy, states did not dispute their freedom to fish the high seas without regulation. Both in the Northeast and Northwest Atlantic the issues of fishery diplomacy were largely restricted to marketing problems, landing rights, reciprocal use of territorial seas and similar problems. Moreover, little progress was made by the North Atlantic states in the development of fishery management programs prior to World War II. The management of fish stocks was first discussed among the scientists of various states working within the framework of the International Council for the Exploration of the Seas (ICES). Only later during the 1930's did conservation of North Atlantic fish stocks become a matter of serious concern in the world of diplomacy. But even then the traditional rivalries and suspicions among the European states of the North Atlantic had spillover effects in fishery management discussions, which were characterized by an increasingly hostile political climate up to the outbreak of war. Moreover, the need for a well developed concept of environmental management had not yet been grasped by the fishery scientists, much less by diplomats or the public at large. Although the European states knew by the late 1940's that they would eventually have to accept a reduction in catch if they wished to solve the problem of stock depletion, most fisheries in the Northeast Atlantic remained unmanaged until the fishing industries of the coastal states were faced with ruin.