Fishing for territory
Historical International Relations and the environment
in The Sea and International Relations
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What would historical International Relations (IR) look like without a sharp distinction between the history of the ‘natural’ and the ‘social’? How would our histories of the core categories of disciplinary IR, such as power, sovereignty, or territory, change? This chapter explores these questions by focusing on the role of fish in international relations, in two different ways. The first section takes a broad global historical perspective, making the case that fish have played a strong role in influencing the direction of maritime empires’ development. In contrast to many accounts in which maritime empire or sea power is largely dependent on land-based phenomena, for example through trade with terrestrial societies, control of the sea has in many cases historically been sought after in pursuit of the sea’s own contents. The second section makes a more specific argument about the place of fish in the global history of territoriality, examining scientific debates about overfishing, from the late nineteenth century onwards. Overfishing was initially shown by the philosopher of science Thomas Huxley to be impossible, but this conclusion was overturned by later scientists, leading states to reverse a longstanding international legal principle and claim exclusive fishing areas. The current territorialisation of the ocean, then, is to a significant degree an outcome of human interactions with fish.


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