International experts discuss fate of the world’s oceans

By Diane Ainsworth, Public Affairs



Fringing reefs along Western Samoa have won protection under recent U.N. agreements.

17 April 2002 | Earth Day, coming up on April 22, isn’t only about recycling and driving less. Scholars, judges and government officials from eight countries converged at Boalt Hall earlier this month to discuss another environmental hot button — the global crisis in our oceans.

Fortunately, said conference co-organizer Harry Scheiber, Boalt Hall’s Riesenfeld Professor of Law and History, there is a “truly revolutionary change now in progress in international law regarding the high seas.”

Since 1995, the deep oceans beyond the 200-mile limits off shore have been covered by the United Nation’s Fishery Stocks Agreement. These waters, he said, “have become as significant in international law as, say, Brown vs. the Board of Education was in American constitutional law and race relations in 1954.”

Prior to the U.N. agreement, it was accepted that no nation had rights against others in fishing in the high seas. Each country controlled its own vessels, enforcing its own environmental or management restrictions at will.

Under the new document, “the stage has been set for so-called ‘regional’ multilateral agreements — under which nations will draw up fishery management and conservation plans, and will enforce them against all participants,” Scheiber said.

The opening session of the April 5-6 conference focused on the historical movement toward new international agreements governing both the deep oceans and illegal fishing.

“Waters off the West Africa coast, in the Antarctic and in many other parts of the oceans are being savagely depleted of their fish resources by predatory illegal fishing,” Scheiber noted.

The extent of this depletion is cause for alarm, according to Morita Hayashi of Japan, former chief of fisheries for the U.N. Food and Agricultural Organization, and Davor Vidas of the Fridtjof Nansen Institute, Norway, who is an expert on Antarctic affairs.

David Caron, conference co-organizer and C. William Maxeiner Distinguished Professor of Law, discussed the work of the U.N.’s special compensation commission handling environmental damage claims from the Gulf War; Caron is U.S. representative on that body. Carlos Esposito of the Spanish Foreign Ministry spoke of the movement toward a treaty for the preservation of “underwater cultural heritage,” which includes historically valuable shipwrecks such as the Titanic.

Another session looked at the potential impact of ocean-based terrorism — either on the high seas or in U.S. ports. A key question before the international community, Scheiber said, is how effective the newly created U.N. Tribunal for the Law of the Sea will be in settling disputes under ocean law.

During the conference, Scheiber announced that management of the Law of the Sea Institute will be transferred to Berkeley’s law school, co-directed by himself and Professor Caron. The institute is an international consortium that has organized conferences and conducted studies of ocean law issues for 25 years.

Scheiber and Caron jointly teach coastal/ocean law and policy in the Boalt Hall curriculum and in the Jurisprudence and Social Policy doctoral program at the School of Law.


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