Finessing King Neptune: Fisheries Management and the Limits of International Law

46 Pages Posted: 17 Feb 2003

See all articles by Rebecca M. Bratspies

Rebecca M. Bratspies

City University of New York - School of Law


The shared uses of the world's oceans includes a broad spectrum of activities. Ships routinely navigate off the shores of virtually every coastal nation and their activities run the gamut from fishing to commerce, recreation, navigation, and military activities - all of which rely on the principle of mare liberum, or freedom of the high seas. Regulating the activities of these many vessels, flying the flags of different sovereign states, on the high seas - the paridigmatic international commons - poses a unique set of challenges for the international legal system. Of these many challenges, managing the mobile fish stocks that straddle zones of national jurisdiction and the international commons is perhaps the most complicated. Managing these resources raises practical questions about who has the authority to make and enforce rules as well as more theoretical questions about the contours of a State's sovereignty over vessels flying its flags. Taken to its logical end, mare liberum implies a right to fish straddling stock to extinction. Each State has an equal right to exploit the resources of the high seas, and no State has authority to regulate the activities of another State's nationals on the high seas. States vary in their commitment to fisheries protection, and no State wants to disadvantage its nationals in the international arena. Unless international law devises a legal framework capable of imposing consistent conservation measures on high seas straddling stocks, mare liberum will drive these stocks towards extinction, either actual or commercial.

This paper uses the interaction between the competing international norms of mare liberum and environmental stewardship in the context of high seas fisheries management to explore fundamental questions of sovereignty and of international law. In particular, I ask whether the fisheries management regime proposed by the 1995 Straddling Stock Agreement can solve this regulatory puzzle in a manner consistent with generally accepted notions of national sovereignty in an international context. In answering that question, I propose a new vision of high seas fisheries management, one that reconciles the apparent contradiction between mare liberum and environmental stewardship.

JEL Classification: K1, K32, K33

Suggested Citation

Bratspies, Rebecca M., Finessing King Neptune: Fisheries Management and the Limits of International Law. Harvard Environmental Law Review, Vol. 25, p. 213, 2001. Available at SSRN: or

Rebecca M. Bratspies (Contact Author)

City University of New York - School of Law ( email )

2 Court Square
Long Island City, NY 11101
United States

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