Strengthening regional fisheries management on the high seas

by Thomas Jensen
Vessels at sea

The fight against IUU fishing remains the most important goal

This article was featured in Eurofish Magazine 4 2022
There have certainly been some successes in the fight for more sustainability in the fishing industry. Particularly where fisheries management has national responsibility for the fish resources in its country’s own territorial waters. Far from the coasts on the open sea, these tasks are often performed by regional fishing industry organisations, which, however, have many problems to deal with. The gap between goals and results is very wide.

Fishing is now organised using management plans almost everywhere in the world. The challenges for fisheries management are enormous, as it should ensure sustainable fishing with permanently high yields and distribute the available resources equitably. Ultimately, then, it must balance what is biologically feasible with what is economically desirable. If fishing authorities – depending on their authority, their commitment and their financial options – have sole national responsibility for the resources, this largely works quite well. The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea introduced 200-mile wide Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) in 1982. But fish stocks do not care about sovereign territories. They migrate freely, and this is where the problems can begin, because changing fish locations force interested fishing nations to distribute catch quotas between themselves in a reasonable way.

The disputes surrounding the unauthorised increasing of quotas by some European states for the exploitation of mackerel in the North East Atlantic, which was not agreed upon internationally, shows how difficult this can be even among civilised nations. The devil is in the details. Traditions and laboriously negotiated compromises waver as soon as there are changes. And these seem to be unavoidable in times of climate change and resurgent national egoism. Rather than renegotiating catch quotas, countries are going their own way in order to benefit at the cost of others. In 2021, the EU fishing industry called for the first sanctions against Norway, which increased its share of the mackerel catch quota from its previous level of 22.5% to its current level of 35% without the agreement of the other coastal states. The fishing dispute between France and the UK as a result of Brexit is likely also not finally resolved. Such conflicts give a hint of how difficult and arduous fisheries management in distant marine regions located outside of the national EEZs can be. Fishing on the high seas is difficult to regulate and can hardly be monitored even with large deployments of materials and personnel.

Still, some initiatives have led to improvements in some areas. For example, the UN has ensured that large-scale driftnet fishing has been banned worldwide. The Convention relating to the Conservation and Management of Straddling Fish Stocks and Highly Migratory Fish Stocks has since been ratified by more than 30 states and has thereby entered into force. The FAO’s “Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries” from 1995 has since been cited and recognised by the majority of states as a code of conduct for responsible and sustainable fishing. However, whether everyone actually follows it in practice on a day-to-day basis is an entirely different question.

Greater commitment is explicitly called for

Despite some difficulties, however, the high seas are not a lawless zone for the fishing industry, since many of these regions are managed and regulated by regional fisheries organisations (RFO), also known as regional fisheries management organisations (RFMO). Their main objective is the organisation of regional fishing activities on the high seas with the goal of sustainable management of resources. RFMOs define the allowed catch quantities for commercially important fish species in their area of responsibility, prescribe technical measures to limit fishing effort and also try to reasonably control compliance with these regulations. Therefore, generally, they take on a quite similar role to fisheries management within national EEZs. Membership in these bodies is open to all states with an interest in fishing in the respective region, since the RFOs are open to both neighbouring countries in the region (coastal states) as well as more distant countries whose fleets are active in these regions (DWFN, Distant Water Fishing Nations). There are currently around 17 RFOs covering large areas of the world’s seas, and some even overlap.

While some RFOs have only advisory functions, the majority of them have direct management powers and specific mandates as part of regional fisheries management. However, these tasks are not uniformly regulated for the RFOs and they intervene in fishing industry processes at different levels. This not only applies to technical measures such as catch and fishing effort restrictions, but also controlling obligations that are required to combat illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing (IUU). In addition to the RFOs with a purely advisory function, a rough distinction can be made between two further groups of RFOs. One group, which includes five RFOs, primarily deals with the management of highly migratory fish stocks, particularly tuna (tuna RFOs) but also other large species such as swordfish and marlin. The areas of responsibility of ICCAT (Atlantic), IOTC (Indian Ocean), WCPFC (West and Central Pacific), IATTC (East Pacific) and CCSBT (southern bluefin tuna) cover a good 90 percent of the world’s seas.

The other RFO group, in contrast, focuses mainly on the management of pelagic and demersal fish stocks as well as other living marine resources in specific geographical regions. For example, the NEAFC in the North East Atlantic, NAFO in the North West Atlantic or SIOFA in the South Indian Ocean. Some of the ­organisations mostly deal with the conservation of specific fish species within their geographic area of responsibility. NASCO, for example, has the goal of protecting wild salmon in the North East Atlantic and the CCBSP aims to sustainably manage pollack stocks in the central Bering Sea. This small number of examples might lead one to believe that RFOs primarily concentrate on commercially valuable species that are of great importance for human consumption. This is only partially true, however, since some RFOs, such as the WCPFC, in addition to managing tuna stocks, are also committed to conserving sharks, seabirds and turtles that are affected by fishing.

Greater participation is helping to close gaps

The fact that some marine regions are not managed by RFOs, although large-scale fishing takes place within them, is a significant shortcoming in the organisation of fishing on the high seas. Sometimes multiple RFOs in other regions feel responsible for the resources, which can then lead to confusion and undermine the effectiveness of management measures. In the fight for a more sustainable fishing industry and better protection of the marine environment, international fisheries management must therefore be organised in a more target-oriented manner, and the work of the RFOs must be better coordinated. There are certainly options available to do so, since new RFOs can be founded at any time if needed on the basis of international agreements or deals. However, it is more important and makes more sense to support and strengthen the existing RFOs through committed cooperation. Currently, the main burden of responsibility for the provision of financial resources for the scientific stewarding of fish stocks and the exchange of data about the fishing industry falls primarily on economically stronger countries, many of which, however, also have large fishing fleets. The EU is very heavily involved as well as the USA and Japan. The EU, represented by the Commission, works in all five tuna RFOs as well as a further 13 non-tuna RFOs and is one of the most important players in fisheries management on the high seas. However, it would be very helpful if more countries with fishing interests in an RFO-managed region actually entered these organisations and actively cooperated within them. This would likely also ensure that all participants complied more strictly with the rules and requirements of the RFO and only engaged in fishing within the permissible limits.


But how can the RFOs succeed in organising their work in often huge marine regions, in order to be able to reasonably reliably estimate the state of fish stocks? Blanket statements in this regard are difficult to make, since almost every fishing organisation is structured differently. Usually, they have sub-commissions or committees that deal with special topics and questions. One of these bodies is usually responsible for the collection of scientific data on fish stocks in the region, on the basis of which possible catch ­quotas are then estimated and suggested. Final decisions, however, are usually made on a consensus basis. In plain language, this means that the responsible fishing industry experts can only begin working out their implementation plans and catch quotas for the next year after all member states have agreed to the recommended measures. This procedure is often subject to justified criticism, since, unfortunately, the RFOs’ catch quotas are sometimes not strictly based on scientific knowledge, but instead are determined according to political criteria and economic opportunity. In order to keep jobs in the fishing industry or to better exploit the capacity of fishing fleets in the short term, the responsible parties often set catch quantities above limits that scientists deem to be sustainable, thereby damaging stocks in the longer term.

This alone is bad enough, but in addition there is the lack of willingness of some states to comply with the approved catch quantities and other decisions of the RFOs. The size of the regions that RFOs are responsible for on the high seas makes comprehensive controls simply impossible. Infringements against applicable law and regulations are therefore mostly only accidentally discovered. Some ships fish more than they are allowed to, in the ports a blind eye is turned when catches are landed and the responsible authorities report incorrect figures to the RFOs. In some locations, the willingness to punish such infringement and to hold the perpetrators accountable is simply not present. Although the RFOs play a central role in the fight against IUU fishing on the high seas, they have until now not managed to prevent overfishing and preserve healthy fish stocks. This is of course not their fault alone, since in some member states the political will to support these goals is lacking. Even in the region covered by the NAFO (Northwest Atlantic Fisheries Organisation), which was founded in 1949 and is one of the most effective RFOs in the world, they have not yet succeeded in implementing all nature conservation and management measures as planned. Since 2005, they have even had to issue complete fishing bans for nearly a dozen different fish stocks within their region.

Technology is making it more difficult for black sheep to engage in ­illegal business

Despite some mistakes, deficits and inadequacies, however, the fisheries organisations remain indispensable. After all, RFOs are the only international bodies dealing with the management of economically important fisheries on the high seas. To improve their work, all interest groups that value the sustainable exploitation of resources should cooperate even more closely with these organisations in order to strengthen their influence on the fishing industry. Especially since the RFOs are making significant efforts towards more effective management. They wish to intensify controls at sea using technological means and close loopholes for illegal fishing. Instead of costly fishing observers on board, the positions and catch areas of vessels are to be monitored in future using satellite tracking. Electronic catch documentation systems make it possible to assign the catches in a more targeted way to specific vessels and catch areas. The lists of approved fishing vessels for individual regions that every RFO has can be improved. It would definitely be helpful for monitoring if the data from the legal vessels was recorded in a comprehensive register, all the more so as many are registered with more than one RFO and operate in different regions. Not every idea is helpful, however. The attempt to prevent regional overfishing by limiting the number of catch days at sea, for example, has proven to not be very effective. Some fishers then acquired more modern and powerful vessels, which were able to catch just as many if not more fish in the shorter time available, which counteracted the intended effect.

Comprehensive monitoring and effective controls for the fishing industry at sea and in the ports are decisive instruments in fisheries management. From a longer-term perspective, they also contribute to better protection of fish stocks and marine ecosystems, which then allows for stable or even higher fishing yields. According to the FAO, 4.6 million fishing vessels are active on global seas, of which, however, only around 64,000 have a length of over 24 m, making them suitable for use on the high seas. These industrial fishing vessels can theoretically be monitored by observers on board, although this would of course be costly. For small-scale fishing, as practised globally by 12 million fishers with millions of small boats, however, it is not possible to monitor and review all of them to the same extent. But there are also opportunities for these regional fisheries to improve controls and management by transferring more responsibility to the regions themselves.

New management ideas with the same goal

Instead of centralised fisheries management concepts, specific groups of users, some fisheries cooperatives or individual fishers have long had the right to exclusively exploit a geographically limited area of the sea. This principle of privately organised self-management is called co-management or territorial use rights in fisheries (TURF). The responsible group of users can manage the resources in their area of responsibility independently and therefore also determine the extraction quantities themselves. It is therefore in their own interests not to overfish the stocks in order to be able to continue to earn a regular income in the future. This form of self-management is particularly suited to marine resources and species that remain in one location and are not highly migratory. Otherwise the motivation for fishing in a way that protects stocks would probably be less, because in the end other users could also profit from the self-imposed catch limits.

Another method for monitoring regional coastal fishing that has already proven itself in salmon fishing in Alaska is now also being tried out in Morocco. Fishers receive chip cards that they use to clock in to automated stations in fishing ports when travelling out to sea and clock out again when they return. With the help of the cards, the catches landed can also be more accurately registered and allocated by the authorities. This means that fisheries management obtains important data on catch quantities, fish species and sizes, fishing effort and the preferred regions for exploitation, and from this data a much more precise picture of the situation at sea can be derived.

In contrast, the suggestion of banning all fishing activity on the high seas has poor prospects for success, because the situation would be difficult to manage, associated with high costs and could not really be comprehensively monitored. Instead, in future the fishing industry should be restricted to the Exclusive Economic Zones. This rigorous strategy would mean, however, that economically important high-sea species such as tuna and swordfish or marlin would largely disappear from fish counters, which would provoke significant resistance. For these reasons, there is no way around strengthening regional fisheries management on the high seas. After all, sustainable fishing that is oriented towards the permanent securing of resources offers both economic and environmental and social benefits, thus benefiting everyone.


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