Nations Have Carved Up the Ocean. Now What?

The U.S. has laid claim to 2.5 billion acres of coastal seas, but that vast area produces very little seafood for Americans. Therein lies a dilemma: should the U.S. cultivate giant offshore fish farms in its piece of the sea or keep taking most of the fish we eat from foreign waters?

By Paul Greenberg

If you live in New York and a dead fish arrives on your doorstep, your first instinct is to think of The Godfather and to assume that someone you haven’t heard from in a while must have been rubbed out. But recently, when not one but two dead fish arrived at my apartment building several blocks south of Don Corleone’s old haunts, I was informed that much the opposite had occurred. Neil Sims, a Hawaii-based aquaculture scientist and entrepreneur whose Kona Blue Water Farm I’d scuba-dived a half-decade ago, was, it appeared, alive and well. The last time I’d heard about Sims, I’d gotten the impression that environmental activists had quashed his dream of creating this country’s first major offshore aquaculture facility. But the letter that accompanied the fish he’d mailed informed me that Sims’s operation had not died but rather evolved. True, he’d dissolved his original company, but he had moved even farther out into the open sea; now, under a new name, he was growing fish like no one had grown them before.

The two fish Sims sent me were almaco jack. To my knowledge, they were among the only fish ever cultured in what is known as the U.S. “Exclusive Economic Zone” or EEZ—the federally controlled stretch of water extending from U.S. coastal boundaries all the way past the continental shelf, some 200 nautical miles from shore. Thanks to a series of political maneuvers over the course of the past half-century, the U.S. has come to control the world’s largest EEZ, with over 2.5 billion acres of ocean—more than twice what we have for growing landfood. And yet, this vast expanse produces relatively little food for us, either from the farm or from the wild. At present, 91 percent of the seafood Americans eat comes from abroad. Most galling to people like Sims, the majority of that foreign seafood is aquacultured. We Americans love farmed fish, it seems, but we just don’t seem to want them produced in our home oceans.

But as I unwrapped the two plump almaco jack that had been reared in a drifting “aquapod” in the federal EEZ off Hawaii’s coast, I couldn’t help but ruminate on one largely unstated fact of our modern seafood supply. In the minds of most consumers, there is a clear dividing line between which fish are wild and which are farmed. But the truth is that this line is increasingly a blurry one. What we are really talking about when we talk about farmed and wild fish is the degree to which those fish and the resources they require are under human control. Prior to 1950, almost all the seafood Americans ate was wild. But more importantly, before that date, the seafood we ate was nearly always ownerless—accessible to anyone around the world who could manage to get a boat to where the fish happened to be. Today, increasingly, the ownership of much of the fish we eat is at least partly predetermined, even before it leaves the water. In the course of the last half-century, the U.S. has in effect annexed 2.5 billion acres of water. How the world came to divvy up the sea, and how nations have used those newly nationalized resources, is the story of the modern ocean. How we and other nations develop them in the future will have huge ramifications for the future of the seas.

It is no small irony that the question of ocean ownership was first seriously debated as a result of events occurring in the waters off Greenland, the historical epicenter of the world’s most valuable farmed fish: Atlantic salmon. For millennia, wild Atlantic salmon from Europe and North America migrated from their home rivers and set out across the Atlantic, where they found in Greenland’s waters huge shoals of krill and capelin to prey upon. These same shoals of forage animals attracted pods of whales, which in turn attracted whalers. In 1613, two Dutch vessels in hot pursuit of whales were intercepted by a small English fleet. The British accused the Dutch captains of “trespassing” in waters claimed by the Crown, arrested their crews, and brought them back to London for trial. It was then that another kind of predator arrived on the scene: a lawyer from Holland named Hugo de Groot.

Hugo de Groot (or Hugo Grotius, as he is more commonly known) was a curious adventurer whose many exploits included surviving a shipwreck, governing Rotterdam, and escaping prison by mailing himself out in a shipping trunk. But by far his most memorable sleight of hand was convincing the world to fundamentally rethink how the ocean was owned. In 1609, Grotius published Mare Liberum or “The Free Seas,” in which he argued that no nation should have sovereignty over the oceans and that by opening up the seas to universal use, benefits would be garnered by all. And although Grotius would go on to lose the Greenland whaling petition in London, the concept of Mare Liberum was greatly popularized during the affair of the Dutch whalers; over the course of the next decades, it would be embraced by the great powers of Europe. It is in large part due to Grotius that from the 1700s all the way until the 1930s, nations would generally agree that the oceans beyond the distance a cannonball could fly would be available for common use—use that included, notably, fishing.

But World War II and its aftermath would finally change all that. The war was very much an ocean war, one where naval technology and an ocean-going vessel’s range dramatically improved. And with this new technology, the possibility of controlling the oceans came to be seen as a way to advance national ambitions. Fishing fleets, the inheritors of much of that WWII maritime technology, became pawns for expressing those territorial ambitions in the postwar era. Through government subsidies, fishing fleets were encouraged to go prospecting for new seafood sources in waters they might not have previously explored.

It was once again in the salmon-rich waters off Greenland that these issues would come to a head. On a series of exploratory fishing trips in 1951, Jørgen Nielsen, chief of Greenland Fisheries Research for the Danish government, deduced that a large percentage of Europe’s and North America’s wild Atlantic salmon converged annually in a relatively small portion of Greenland’s waters. Nielsen, as was his duty, placed this information into the hands of the Danish fishing fleet. What followed was an unregulated, species-decimating blitzkrieg in which Scandinavian fleets effectively stole salmon from the nations of the world. Their catches rose from 60 to more than 2600 metric tons within a decade. Catches were so phenomenal and seemingly limitless that a Danish captain named Ole Martensen bragged to a Copenhagen newspaper that he planned to go to Japan to learn the techniques of fishing on the publicly owned high seas. He promised to return with a new, 135-ton Japanese cutter equipped with the most modern Japanese gear. By 1970, thanks to people such as Captain Martensen, the wild salmon fishery of the North Atlantic became so public as to be out of control.

Not coincidentally, 1970 was the same year that privatized salmon aquaculture started in earnest. It all began when a Norwegian purse seiner captain named Sivert Grønvedt and his brother, Ove, started putting salmon juveniles into net pens hung in the sea off the island of Hitra. By 1971, their harvest would be 98 tons. Within a decade, the privately owned salmon farms of the Norwegian fjords would nearly replace the public salmon fishery.

Meanwhile, in the Pacific, the same Japanese high-seas fishermen who had schooled the Danish captain on how to really hammer wild salmon were causing similar damage in public fisheries around the world. Japan’s newly rebuilt fishing fleet began venturing into international waters. To the north, the Japanese moved into the Bering Sea with massive drift net operations that harvested hundreds of thousands of pounds of pink, chum, and sockeye salmon—many of which spawned in American rivers. To the south, Japanese fleets advanced into the upwelling of the Humboldt Current off Peru and Chile. Here, Japanese tuna vessels congregated, fishing international waters so hard that many local fishermen gave up entirely on hunting big fish. Instead, they turned to the tiny Peruvian anchoveta, a fish nobody seemed to want but which would later become the source of industrial feed for much of the world’s farmed salmon. Today the Peruvian anchoveta is the largest fishery on earth by tonnage, and most of it goes to feeding farmed fish.

Alongside this wild international race for fish, nations on the receiving end of the onslaught began objecting to what was perceived as outright piscatorial theft. In August 1952 Peru, Chile, and Ecuador collectively signed the Santiago Declaration, which established a 200–nautical mile exclusive economic zone for the cosigners of the treaty. The number 200 seems to hail from the Panama Declaration of 1939, in which the U.K. and the U.S. agreed to put in place a quarantine zone around South America in order to halt the resupplying of Axis ships in austral ports. Twenty years later, the United Nations would take up the issue in a series of meetings lasting into the 1980s, resulting in the eventual ratification of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS III). The U.S. would never sign UNCLOS III, but that didn’t stop it from unilaterally declaring a 200-mile EEZ in 1983. As the century entered its final quarter, nearly every nation came to own its marine resources in waters out to 200 nautical miles from shore. Hugo de Groot’s free seas were, increasingly, private property.

Now that the U.S. had exclusive rights to the ocean at its doorstep, maximizing the value of those waters was the next logical move. And there is perhaps no better place to see how that has been achieved than in the salmon grounds of Alaska. A little while back, I got a bird’s-eye view of this fishery while flying with R. J. Kopchak, a former Alaska commercial salmon fisherman, over Prince William Sound near the southeast Alaska town of Cordova.

“Look at all those boats! Wow, look at that one—he’s got a lotta fish in that net! Jesus Christ!” said Kopchak, who in his retirement from fishing cofounded the Prince William Sound Science Center and regularly observes the fleet. Only a few of the boats were actually fishing, the salmon visibly flashing as they hit the nets. But to the south, a gaggle of vessels had queued up in a surprisingly orderly fashion, waiting to fish this particularly productive spit. “Sometimes the boats will wait in line for five hours, just to fish that point for ten minutes,” Kopchak told me. During the height of the fishing season, one of the members of the fleet is typically designated “the mayor,” taking down names and making sure that every fisherman gets a turn at the salmon.

The orderly nature of the salmon fishery is a relatively recent phenomenon. It took shape in the Pacific in tandem with the establishment of the 200-mile U.S. EEZ. Prior to the 1970s, Alaska’s salmon fisheries had been constitution-ally mandated to be public—a fishery open to all. But as the move to control ocean resources began to ramp up in the early 70s, and as Alaska’s salmon fisheries showed consistent decline from the 1930s onward, the state government changed things dramatically. In 1973, Alaska passed the Limited Entry Act, which effectively capped the number of fishermen who could pursue salmon. As of the year 2000, 63 different Alaskan salmon fisheries were under limitations—with approximately 14,000 individual permits issued. Today it is extremely difficult for a new fisherman to enter. First, an existing permit must be put up for sale—and today, a permit in the Prince William Sound area can cost more than $200,000. In other non-salmonid fisheries elsewhere in Alaska, restricted access is even more extreme. In fisheries such as halibut, regulators limit the number of fishermen and sometimes even pre-allocate exactly how much an individual fisherman may catch. In these kinds of regimes, the result is something that starts to look less like fishing and more like the harvesting of a private herd.

The gradual fencing off of U.S. fisheries would have a curious effect outside American waters. After UNCLOS III went into effect in the early 1990s, Japanese high seas fleets were increasingly restricted in their ability to fish U.S. salmon grounds. U.S. and Canadian regulators even overstepped UNCLOS bounds with a bilateral treaty claiming ownership of all North American–born salmon anywhere in the ocean they might roam, including well outside the EEZ.

In light of these developments, Japanese fisheries officials recognized the need to have some other means of acquiring salmon. Since the 1890s, Japan had been operating salmon hatcheries on the northernmost island of Hokkaido through a handful of private firms. These operations produced a low if consistent number of salmon, which upon release would migrate into the Bering Sea, fatten up, and then return to Japan—where they were harvested by Japanese fishermen. But as fishing restrictions peaked in 1993, Japan greatly boosted its salmon hatchery program. Hatchery fish releases went from under 100 million juveniles in 1950 to a present level of well over 1 billion fish.

Not to be outdone, the U.S. began a salmon supplementation project of its own. Today, about a third of all the “wild” salmon in Alaska are the products of hatcheries. And before being released into the wild, salmon juveniles from those hatcheries are fed wild fish—sometimes anchoveta, sometimes forage fish taken from any number of countries around the world. But forage fish—one of the most poorly regulated classes of fish in the sea—are now such a highly traded commodity item that they can come from dubious sources. In 2007, Alaskan hatchery fish were found to be contaminated with melamine because they’d eaten the same Chinese fishmeal that had tainted Chinese products ranging from chickens to pet food.

Once these hatchery-raised salmon are released into coastal rivers, they head out into the open ocean, where they share the same resources in the Bering Sea as salmon originating from the Japanese side. In other words, prior to the nationalization of oceans, fishing nations competed for salmon. Now those same nations allow their salmon to compete with one another for prey. Japan and the U.S. still fight over fish, only now it is a proxy war where the salmon do the fighting. As a result of all this stock supplementation, there are probably more salmon in the Bering Sea than at any other time in recorded history. Whether those artificially high numbers exceed the carrying capacity of the Bering Sea is now openly debated by scientists. Many in the aquaculture community call this aspect of the Alaskan salmon fishery outright hypocrisy. Why, they ask, are U.S. aquaculturists frequently the target of environmental scrutiny, when hatchery-supplemented salmon may be stressing the Bering Sea ecosystem with an equally punishing effect?

Stock supplementation or not, Americans still can’t seem to get their hands on enough American fish. While the more classic finfish aquaculture off the coasts of Chile, Norway, and Southeast Asia supply the U.S. with a large portion of its seafood, Americans have turned up their noses at near-shore, privately owned aquaculture. From the dawn of salmon farming in 1970 and until 2010, the U.S. coastal population grew by 39 percent. As coastal states have become progressively gentrified, property owners have voiced consistent and effective protest against aquaculture’s presence in their “viewshed.” Today the U.S. remains one of the most difficult places in the world to site aquaculture facilities, even though Americans eat more farmed fish than nearly any other nation on earth.

How, then, in the year 2014—the twentieth anniversary of UNCLOS III’s coming into effect—should the U.S. proceed with using all the ocean resources it has come to acquire? Should we be content with the U.S. wild fish quota satisfying about ten percent of our seafood demand, relying on imported farmed fish for the rest? Should we continue to stealthily stock our EEZ with fish and pretend it’s not really a form of aquaculture? Or should the U.S. revise its vision for its EEZ and think of it as a place where aquaculture could be more ecofriendly, coexisting with wild fish populations?

Neil Sims, the Hawaiian fish farmer who mailed me those two almaco jack from the U.S. EEZ, feels the present model needs to be rethought. “I get emotional about the lack of aquaculture [in the U.S.],” Sims wrote me recently. “I am haunted by the fact that the U.S. has the largest EEZ on the planet. We import the greatest amount of seafood (by dollar value) of all countries on the planet. And how much seafood was commercially grown last year in federal waters? Nothing. Zip. Nada. Zilch. Same as last year. And the year before that . . .”

Sims envisions deep-moored arrays of submersible net pens scattered over the wide expanse of the EEZ in waters so deep and far from shore that, he believes, many of the pollution problems typically associated with aquaculture will be mitigated. “All of the accumulated evidence from open ocean aquaculture operations,” he wrote, “suggests that when located in deep water, with adequate currents, there is no significant increase in nutrient levels once you get away from the immediate area around the net pens.”


In fact, Sims argues, aquaculture could actually improve wild offshore areas. Being far from coastal river mouths, offshore zones are often nutrient-poor and are biologically sparse. This is something Sims believes aquaculture could change. “As this industry scales,” Sims wrote, “there may begin to be some measurable increase in primary productivity (phytoplankton) . . . And with more primary productivity, properly assimilated, you will have more biodiversity, and you have what would generally be considered an ‘improvement’ over otherwise empty ocean space.” Aquaculture scientist Jack Rensel, who has worked with academics, government, and industry since 1974 and who coheads a company that produces software to model the effects of fish farms, thinks similarly:  “If there were large fish farms properly located and spaced in the truly blue water [of the] open ocean, there is a huge capacity to assimilate the waste dissolved nitrogen into the food web without perturbation.” After four decades of trying to help farmers optimize fish production while avoiding potentially adverse effects of waste nutrients on nearshore waters, Rensel believes that in the EEZ, “Carbon-containing organic fish waste particles that are not assimilated by the food web can settle to the deep ocean for mineralization and removal from the biosphere. But to date, the industry is limited to locations near shore or, in the U.S., to few if any locations.”

There are, of course, many unknowns here, and it is often difficult to assess the impact of repurposing large swaths of the wild until long after the damage has been done. “Fertilization of almost any kind can have profound effects,” MacArthur Fellow and Blue Ocean Institute President Carl Safina wrote me when I shared some of Neil Sims’s thoughts. “A rusting boat on a coral reef can destroy corals over a wide area because the mere rust provides enough iron to let normally iron-limited seaweeds overgrow corals. Business people who promise that their business will be good if let loose in the world set off very loud alarm bells with me because, usually, those people are dangerously wrong.”

Others in the environmental community put greater faith in the EEZ’s unmodified natural systems to do more than just give us food. “Ultimately, natural ecosystems do a better job of providing a balanced suite of goods and services (including seafood production, resilient food webs, abundant wildlife, biodiversity, etc.) than human engineered systems,” Geoff Shester of the ocean conservation NGO Oceana wrote me. “The more we try to produce more food than our ecosystems naturally provide, the more we will be stealing from future generations. And if it was food production we cared about, we should get rid of the net pens and instead eat the forage species we’re currently feeding to marine finfish. If we did that, we could feed more people healthier food (higher omega-3s and lower contaminants), leave more fish in the ocean, and free ourselves from a sustainability debate which is really about the lesser of evils.” While Shester’s idea is a biologically sound one, getting Americans to switch over from eating big, predatory fish such as salmon to low-trophic forage fish such as anchoveta has remained an elusive goal. The list of the ten most-consumed seafoods in the U.S. contains nary an anchovy nor a sardine.

Because of all the various doubts raised by the environmental community, a pall of skepticism remains around expanding the use of the U.S. EEZ for aquaculture. For the moment, we seem content to import away our fish deficiencies. And so Neil Sims’s EEZ-grown almaco jack that lay on my counter, ready for the fillet knife, would probably be one of the only ones actually eaten by a human.

But ten-plus years into his project—and heading farther and farther out into the EEZ—Sims shows no signs of giving up on his idea. Indeed, it has become something of a crusade, a crusade to get Americans to acknowledge the fact that the fish they are eating is very different from what they imagine it to be.

“It all reminds me of Lewis Carroll’s walrus and the carpenter,” Sims mused at the end of his latest communication to me, “where the walrus is sobbing into his handkerchief over the fate of the oysters . . . but only so he can conceal how many of the larger oysters he is eating.”


Paul Greenberg is the author of the James Beard Award–winning New York Times bestseller Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food and a regular contributor to The New York Times Magazine, Book Review, and Opinion Page. He has also written for National Geographic Magazine, GQ, The Times (of London), Vogue, and many other publications. His newest book, American Catch: The Fight for Our Local Seafood will be available in June 2014 from Penguin Press.

Illustration ©Guy Billout