A political scientist, a lawyer, and an anthropologist walk into a sushi bar. They sit down to eat, but the bartender says apologetically that they are fished out and wonders how the bar can avoid this in the future. The political scientist claims that the area sushi bars need to cooperate better to prevent overfishing. The lawyer notes that they need to do a better job of keeping newcomers out of sushi bars to reduce the strain on the fish supplies. The anthropologist argues that if we got rid of sushi bars in the first place, they would never run out of fish.

As far as “three people walk into a bar” jokes go, this one is not particularly good. One can take this as a metaphor for international fisheries management—a bit of a joke, but not at all funny. In this context, three recent books, one written by a political scientist, another by an international lawyer, and the third by an anthropologist, address the problem of international fisheries management, each from its own disciplinary perspective. The books ask how, or whether, the current intergovernmental system for regulating international fishing can be fixed. Individually, each has thoughtful insights to share about the current system of international fisheries management. Read collectively, they provide a useful reminder of the limits that disciplinary blinders place on our ability to analyze complex problems at the interface of social science and environmental studies.

The three books are addressing the same set of circumstances, about which they have different emphases but few substantive disagreements. International fish stocks, understood as those that are located in the high seas, that are highly migratory, or that straddle national jurisdictions, are poorly managed. While accounts differ, there is a broad consensus that these stocks on the whole are being fished unsustainably. Not only are stocks getting smaller but, in many species, the fish themselves are getting smaller under pressure from industrial fishing. Pressure on many species from habitat loss, pollution, and climate change exacerbates that from industrial fishing.

International fisheries cannot by definition be governed by one state authoritatively; they must therefore be governed collectively. This is for the most part done through a set of regional fisheries management organizations, or RFMOs, each of which is focused on a specific region and/or type of species. It is difficult to identify a precise number of RFMOs out there, because it is not clear what counts as an RFMO and what does not. If only organizations that generate authoritative restrictions on members’ fishing, such as quotas, are counted, the number is in the low twenties. If organizations that play a nonauthoritative advisory role are included, the number is in the mid-thirties. These organizations collectively should in principle be managing international fisheries sustainably. In practice, they often do not.

There are two primary categories of reasons why they do not. The first is the classic difficulty of regulating the global commons when participation in the mechanisms of international law is voluntary. States can free ride, enforcement can be difficult, and the politics of the distribution of fisheries quotas is zero sum. There are various mechanisms for ameliorating these hazards, ranging from the institutional to the legal to the technological, but none is perfect. The second category of reasons is more existential: RFMOs are at their core designed to maximize the sustainable catch of fish. They are in this sense industrial groups, not environmental ones. They are the foxes collectively managing the chicken coop—better than no management at all, but still, particularly from the perspective of the chickens, not an ideal arrangement.

The three books reviewed here all recognize both categories of reasons, but the political science and law perspectives emphasize the difficulties of regulating the commons, while the anthropological perspective is more critical of the industrial nature of the RFMO system. In Governing the Oceans in a Time of Change: Fishing for the Future?, political scientist Marcus Haward provides the broadest overview of the three books of the institutional structure of international fisheries management. He locates the RFMO system in a network of both international institutions and legal instruments, ranging from the Law of the Sea to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. And he categorizes what he argues are the major sources of crisis in international fisheries. These include questions about the regulatory performance of RFMOs, such as limits on their ability to manage illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing, and to trace and certify fish after they are caught. They also include forces beyond the control of RFMOs, particularly climate change and limits on efforts to protect marine biodiversity.

Haward disaggregates the various roles of RFMOs, focusing on both their scientific responsibilities and their roles in allocating resources across countries. He notes recent developments in international fisheries governance that provide new tools to combat IUU fishing, such as certification systems, market exclusion mechanisms, and chain-of-custody arrangements. He then devotes considerable space to the question of how to assess RFMOs, reviewing the extensive literature on the question and looking at criteria such as capacity, coordination, coherence, effectiveness, and responsiveness. The conclusion he draws from all of this is that while the RFMO system is complicated and flawed, it is also necessary, and that the system needs to be “re-visioned” rather than replaced. To this end, a renewed focus on assessment can help scholars to understand what is working and what is not.

Roughly half of Governing the Oceans in a Time of Change is devoted to three case studies. The first of these looks at the northeast Atlantic Ocean, focusing on the North East Atlantic Fisheries Commission (NEAFC). This region provides both one of the longest histories of international cooperation on fisheries and interesting examples of institutional cooperation, particularly between NEAFC and OSPAR, an environmental and biodiversity protection treaty for the northeast Atlantic region. The second examines the tuna fisheries in the Pacific and Indian oceans, one of the most important groups of international fisheries in terms of commercial value, employment, and economic centrality to littoral states, particularly a set of small island states in the Pacific. This chapter gives an overview of the range of both RFMOs and other international agreements governing management of highly migratory tuna stocks. The third case study is of the southern oceans, and particularly of the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR), which is unique among RFMOs in its use of an ecosystem approach, rather than species-by-species management, in its regulation of its geographic purview.

The case studies are individually interesting and highlight a number of challenges facing the governance of international fisheries. Ultimately, however, they are not sufficiently integrated into the theoretical chapters that bracket them. The resulting impression is one of an overview of the complicatedness of and challenges facing international fisheries governance rather than an argument about what is to be done. Haward gives us a survey of rubrics for assessment of RFMOs but does not systematically apply any of them. He argues that the system needs to be re-visioned but does not tell us how.

The New Entrants Problem in International Fisheries Law by Andrew Serdy focuses more narrowly but at greater depth on a specific question. Given that international fisheries are a global commons to which all states should in principle have access, but are already overexploited by those who currently fish them, how can new entrants be legally prevented from making overexploitation worse? This is the traditional tragedy of the commons argument as applied to the high seas. The concept of common pool resources at the heart of the tragedy of the commons argument comes from economics but is nonetheless built on a legal distinction. A common pool resource is by definition not excludable, and excludability is in large part a question of law (who has rights to a good) rather than inherent in the resource. The law on the question of excludability of high seas fisheries at this point in time, Serdy argues, is unclear in a way that undermines effective governance.

In making this argument Serdy provides a comprehensive review both of the history of law on high seas fisheries access and of its status at the time of writing. The history is one of gradual restriction of an unfettered right to fish, but of restriction that muddies rather than clarifies the rights of potential new entrants. The UN fish stocks agreement of 1995, for example, gives a number of potential logics for exclusion, including both an imperative for sustainable management and a preference in quota allocations for established fishing states over new entrants, but does not explicitly revoke the concept of the rights of all states to access the global commons. The tension created by this lack of clarity is illustrated by a detailed case study of the creation and growth of the Commission for the Conservation of Southern Bluefin Tuna.

An interesting aspect of the book is Serdy’s argument that the conceptual language in which international fisheries law is discussed can undermine the effectiveness of that law. He is, for example, critical of the concept of maximum sustainable yield (MSY) from fisheries science, for being (to simplify) far too easy to use as political cover for overfishing by pretending precision where the science is uncertain. He also devotes a chapter to a critique of the concept of IUU fishing for conflating a set of distinct problems in a way that focuses attention on the exclusion of new entrants at the expense of a focus on actually reducing overfishing.

Serdy concludes with two suggestions for dealing with the new entrants problem in a way that improves the sustainable governance of international fisheries. The first focuses on the creation of a system of tradable quotas; such systems have shown some success in regulating domestic fisheries. The process of creating such a system, he argues, would necessarily address some of the legal questions surrounding access to international fisheries. The second is a reintroduction of the legal concept of state responsibility to the legal discourse on international fishing. This concept holds states specifically responsible for harm done from within their territories or by their nationals. This would place economic liability for environmental harm done by specific instances of overfishing with the state where the fishing vessel is flagged.

Both Serdy and Haward build their analyses on the assumption that fish are resources to be harvested and on concern that the RFMO system does not seem to be ensuring the sustainability of those resources. Jennifer Telesca, in Red Gold: The Managed Extinction of the Giant Bluefin Tuna, begins by assuming that fish, specifically bluefin tuna, are living beings deserving of our respect, and her concern that the relevant RFMOs are not managing their fisheries sustainably tinges into anger that they are actively contributing to the destruction of the species. The book, like Serdy’s, includes a critique of a number of concepts underpinning international fisheries governance, particularly MSY. The primary empirical work underpinning the book, though, is an ethnographic study of the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tuna (ICCAT).

This ethnography looks both at meetings of member states of ICCAT and at the workings of parts of the Commission itself, such as the Standing Committee on Research and Statistics. This research is presented as a series of specific stories, following, for example, the creation of one particular statistic or the politicking surrounding one particular vote. These stories are well observed and effectively told. On one hand, the stories of blinkered professionalism on the part of the professional staff, cynicism on the part of state representatives (and, often, of NGOs as well), and a general fondness for getting through business as efficiently as possible to get to the evening cocktail party on time will surprise nobody who has spent time observing multilateral diplomacy close up. On the other hand, the extent to which ICCAT operates (at the ethnographic scale) as more of an industry support group than an environmental steward will make painful reading for scholars more used to thinking about RFMOs at a larger scale.

Telesca embeds these ethnographic sketches in two broader contexts. The first is a lament for the fate of the bluefin, to be understood as a fisheries statistic rather than as one of the most majestic creatures of the marine world. The second is a critical political economy that speaks of commodity empires and predatory regimes of value. This latter context, unfortunately, is not as well explained as it might be. Many terms are used, but they are often inadequately defined and contextualized, and the relationship among them is not always clear. What, for example, is the relationship between commodity imperialism and the commodification of nature? It seems reasonable that there is one, but the way that the relationship speaks specifically to the ethnography of ICCAT is never made clear. This imprecision is symptomatic of a broader weakness in the argumentation linking the ethnography to the political economy. Furthermore, the grounding of the political economy in a critique of finance is not entirely convincing. Large-scale fishing often does not make sense financially and survives only through subsidy. It is, in other words, often a capital-destroying rather than a capital-creating activity.

Red Gold can be a bit sloppy in its details, too. It speaks of export quotas when it appears to mean catch quotas, for example, and confuses cod wars and turbot wars. It makes up for this, however, in both its eye for telling ethnographic detail and its passion on a topic so often dominated by dry technical detail. And it reminds us that to focus on institutional structure and legal mechanisms, as scholars of international fishing governance so often do, risks missing both the fine detail of what actually goes on in RFMOs and the big picture of the political economy within which they operate and which they are called upon to regulate.

What does reading these three books together tell us about the governance of international fisheries? It tells us that several concepts that are commonplace in international fisheries governance, like MSY and IUU, are problematic from a variety of different perspectives and should not be accepted at face value. It tells us that the current system of RFMOs is failing on several different levels and likely cannot be fixed by a focus on any one of them alone. And it tells us that studying international fisheries governance with disciplinary blinders on limits our ability to see those perspectives. Good disciplinary work is necessary, but not sufficient. Better communication across disciplinary borders is necessary as well. Reading these three books together is a good start on that task.