Fisheries in the high latitudes were, up to the middle of the 20th century, largely a domestic affair of the Arctic societies. Only technological innovations of the 20th century, most notably the introduction of factory-freezer-trawlers to the fishing fleets of a number of industrialized and in particular European countries, enabled low to mid-latitude nations to participate in these fisheries. After the introduction of highly sophisticated fishing vessels to the distant-water fishing fleets, a number of conflicts between coastal nations and distant-water fishing nations occurred in the North-Atlantic basin that resulted in short time in the extension of national fisheries jurisdiction of Arctic and Subarctic nations and finally in a more or less complete nationalization of the Arctic fisheries. An unintended side effect of this nationalization was the transfer of fishing conflicts from an international to a domestic level within these nations. Now there are large-scale industrialized domestic fisheries operating for shareholder value on the one side, and subsistence fisheries on the other side. After the exclusion of the former distant-water fishing nations from fisheries in the Arctic parts of the Atlantic, some fishing companies of the nations formerly active in the North Atlantic Arctic region developed a fishery in the Southern Ocean off Antarctica. With no national jurisdiction but only a somewhat weak international treaty system in existence, new fishing conflicts arose in the South. But unlike the conflicts in the Arctic, these conflicts were between multinational groups interested in the protection of the marine ecosystem and national/multinational companies directly interested in shareholder value. While it seems that the domestic conflicts of the Arctic and the international conflicts of the Southern Ocean are completely different, they are in fact the two sides of the same coin. Fisheries in the high latitudes have been, throughout the 20th century, a mirror of the wider socio-economic question if natural resources are a common good or an exploitable resource.
Ingo Heidbrink is Professor of History at Old Dominion University, USA.