Follow the Leader: Learning from experience and best practice in regional fisheries management organizations

Willock A, Lack M (2006) Follow the Leader: Learning from experience and best practice in regional fisheries management organizations. WWF International

Executive Summary: Governance of the world’s oceans is characterized by a patchwork of organizations tasked with the conservation and management of living marine resources. Formal co-operation between States through Regional Fisheries Management Organizations (RFMOs) dates back to at least the 1920s and there are now 16 RFMOs with a mandate to establish binding management measures for fisheries resources. While some gaps remain, particularly with respect to discrete, high seas fish stocks, the vast majority of the marine fisheries resources of the world’s oceans are under the control of at least one, if not more than one, RFMO. The expectations placed on RFMOs have grown exponentially in the past decade or so with a proliferation of both international hard and soft law, most notably the development and entry into force of the United Nations Fish Stocks Agreement (UNFSA). Despite the proliferation of RFMOs and the development and evolution of instruments aimed at empowering them, RFMOs have generally failed to prevent over-exploitation of straddling and highly migratory fish stocks, to rebuild overexploited stocks and to prevent degradation of the marine ecosystems in which fishing occurs. Not only have broader, international expectations not been met but RFMOs have also largely failed to meet the objectives of their own governing conventions, generally characterized as conservation and sustainable utilization of target stocks under their mandate. It is difficult to identify examples of sustainable management of target stocks by RFMOs. There are ongoing discussions at the highest levels of government concerning improvements to the effectiveness of governance of the world’s oceans. These discussions have canvassed a wide range of institutional and legal reforms, including the establishment of an overarching global oceans governance commission, new implementing agreements for discrete high seas stocks and port State measures, and a single governance body for all tunas. While there is undoubtedly merit in many of these suggested approaches, the time frame within which such significant reform could be negotiated and implemented is a lengthy one. Given this, RFMOs are the available vehicle through which strengthened conservation and management measures for the world’s living marine resources can be achieved in the short- to medium-term, if not for decades to come. This report has examined the experiences of RFMOs with respect to the broader expectations of the global community, as reflected in legal instruments and internationally-agreed standards and protocols, and identifies what might be characterized as best practice approaches to these. These are summarized in Appendix II. In examining these experiences, the structure of the report is closely aligned with the Guidance for Assessing the Performance of RFMOs recommended by the recent final report of the Ministerially-led Task Force on IUU Fishing on the High Seas (HSTF). Although the past performance of most RFMOs has been poor, this report has identified that a number of these organizations are taking steps to embrace some of the more recent international standards and expectations. For example, a number of RFMOs are moving to develop management strategies that reflect a more structured and binding approach to decision-making, framed within the precautionary approach and an ecosystem approach to management. Further, there is more recent evidence of RFMOs’ seeking to share elements of best practice among themselves, particularly with regard to compliance and enforcement and trade-related measures. It is also apparent that some RFMOs are becoming more receptive to re-examining their modus operandi in response to external expectations, including through initiating formal review processes. Attempts to improve the performance of RFMOs require the causal factors of poor performance to be clearly identified. Although each individual RFMO operates in a relatively unique geo-political environment there is nevertheless a strong degree of commonality in the factors affecting their performance. IUU fishing by highly mobile fleets under the control of multinational companies is widely recognized as a major threat to the sustainability of the world’s living marine resources as well as the broader marine environment in which fishing activity takes place and much work has been done in attempting to identify ways in which IUU fishing can be prevented, deterred and eliminated. While there is no doubt that IUU fishing is a major threat facing RFMOs that will require co-operation and collaboration with other organizations to address, it is also clear that efforts directed at IUU fishing will do little to address internal failures of RFMOs. Vast over-capacity in authorised fleets, over-fishing of stocks under catch limits set by an RFMO, the virtual absence of robust rebuilding strategies for seriously depleted stocks and a lack of precaution where information is lacking or uncertain are all characteristic of the management regimes currently in place under many RFMOs. Indeed, the experience of most RFMOs to date would suggest that, even if efforts to eradicate IUU fishing were entirely successful, this would not, in and of itself, deliver healthy and sustainable marine fisheries. That is, 100% legal, reported and regulated fishing activity would still result in unsustainable fishing in the absence of improved decision-making and the robust application of the precautionary approach. This report identifies some overarching recommendations aimed at addressing some of the common impediments to improved performance by RFMOs. These recommendations are directed towards strengthening the will and capacity of RFMOs and their member States, promoting the adoption of precautionary and ecosystem approaches to management, facilitating continuous improvement and accountability, and maximising opportunities for collaboration and transparency