Lessons Learned: Stopping High Seas Bottom Trawling (Summer 2009 Trust Magazine article)

Source Organization: The Pew Charitable Trusts

Author: Scott B. Scrivner and Lester W. Baxter


08/11/2009 - The growing demand for seafood, along with advances in deepwater fishing technology, has opened up large areas of the ocean floor to commercial fishing. Bottom trawling— towing a heavily weighted net along the sea floor—is the most commonly used commercial technique to harvest life from the deep sea, but it can seriously damage and even destroy sea-bed ecosystems.

In 2004 The Pew Charitable Trusts joined a group of organizations to form the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition. With Pew’s support, which was bolstered by contributions from donors including the J.M. Kaplan Fund, the Lenfest Foundation, the Oak Foundation and the Sandler Family Supporting Foundation, the coalition launched a campaign to secure a United Nations General Assembly resolution calling for a moratorium on all bottom-trawl fishing on the high seas.

To better understand the contributions of this project, Planning and Evaluation designed an evaluation plan with the following objectives:

  • assess the effectiveness of the campaign’s strategy as a means to achieve the project’s primary objective;
  • examine the extent to which the campaign contributed to other restrictions on bottom trawling;
  • gain insight about the effectiveness of this network of individuals and organizations in implementing this strategy; and
  • better understand the time, resources and approaches that might be needed to inform future deliberations at the U.N. General Assembly and other multilateral organizations.
A three-person external team conducted the evaluation: John Willis, the team leader and director of campaigns and research at Strategic Communications Inc. (Stratcom), a Canadian consulting firm; Mary Beth West, an independent consultant on international oceans and fisheries law and policy; and Mirga Saltmiras, a senior associate at Stratcom.

They (1) interviewed Pew staff, members of the project’s core unit, diplomats, politicians and policy makers who participated in the U.N. process, and knowledgeable observers of international marine issues; (2) reviewed relevant project products and documentation; and (3) analyzed external documentary evidence, including media coverage, background papers produced by the U.N. and key countries in the debate, and Web sites and publications from allied organizations not members of the coalition.

Summary of Evaluation FindingsThe project did not succeed in securing a resolution from the U.N. calling for a moratorium on bottom trawling on the high seas. The evidence indicates, however, that the project was pivotal in rapidly advancing the issue of constraining bottom trawling on the international fisheries agenda. As a consequence, in December 2006 the U.N. adopted Resolution 61/105, which aims to control bottom fishing of all kinds.

The marine policy experts and diplomats consulted by the evaluators viewed this resolution as a significant step forward in protecting marine biodiversity and in oceans governance as a whole. For example, the resolution requires all regional fisheries management organizations to identify vulnerable marine ecosystems, determine whether bottom fishing is harmful and, if so, either establish measures to eliminate harm or cease bottom fishing.

History will decide whether the U.N. resolution proves effective in reducing the harm that bottom trawling causes—far too little time has passed to support a firm judgment either way. Yet the early signs are hopeful. Five regional fisheries management organizations have included in their definitions of vulnerable marine ecosystems the habitat types recommended by the coalition. And discussions since the U.N. action in 2006 suggest that the prospect of a future full moratorium on bottom fishing is motivating some of the most reticent actors in this field to seriously implement the existing resolution.

According to experienced diplomats, the speed with which some countries are moving to regulate bottom fishing in light of the U.N.’s decision is “surprising” and “unprecedented.”

Evidence also suggests that the project’s efforts led to (1) Japan working with the United States, Russia and South Korea to establish a new North Pacific regional fisheries regime; and (2) the countries responsible for managing fisheries in the South Pacific taking interim measures on bottom trawling.

These measures, which apply to approximately 25 percent of the world’s high seas, prohibit the geographic expansion of bottom trawling and close areas to fishing that contain or are likely to contain vulnerable marine ecosystems.

The project is also credited with helping increase the capacity of nonprofit organizations to monitor the implementation of Resolution 61/105 and to carry out other international fisheries campaigns. And the work has attracted a larger international marine advocacy network, from eight original coalition members to more than 60 at the time of the evaluation.

Effectiveness of Strategy and Performance of Individuals and OrganizationsThe evaluators viewed the coalition as “an extremely strong and talented group of campaigners—in fact, one of the best campaign teams we . . . have encountered.” This was illustrated by the coalition’s response to its greatest challenge: It initially underestimated the strength of the opposition and overestimated the level of support to ban bottom trawling. Yet it responded adroitly to the unfolding circumstances in the field, which is a testament to the skill, planning, coordination and drive of the core coalition group.

All told, the campaign was responsive to the changing political landscape and deployed an array of effective tactics that built momentum for eventual U.N. action that culminated in the protection of seamounts, coldwater corals and other sensitive and biologically diverse ecological zones on the floor of the high seas. In the view of the evaluators, the project became a stronger actor in pushing for action on bottom trawling on the international political scene than almost any single country.

For the FutureThere may be more than one way to measure success. The underlying strategic intent of the coalition campaign was to halt damage to marine ecosystems caused by bottom trawling. With this in mind, the campaign adopted a clear objective—a moratorium on bottom trawling throughout the high seas—which was not delivered. But the campaign sparked what appears to be a meaningful advance in ocean conservation and international law, and the U.N.’s eventual resolution is having a positive nearterm effect on the behavior of bottomfishing countries that has the promise to yield long-lasting benefits.

A familiar project structure can help. Although the coalition was Pew’s first campaign in international fisheries, the basic coalition structure, also used in Pew’s successful wilderness-protection campaigns, allows for flexible and timely responses to regional conditions, facilitates information exchange among the many moving parts of the campaign and creates the sense that, in the words of two diplomats interviewed for this evaluation, “the activists were everywhere” and had “always done their homework” prior to engaging with experts or politicians.

Sometimes execution trumps strategy. An excellent strategy will almost certainly fall short of the goal if those charged with implementation are not up to the task. But outstanding people can adapt strategy to take advantage of unanticipated opportunities and respond to the complexities of international advocacy campaigns. The coalition strategy benefited from having an experienced and highly capable team at the heart of the campaign. This is a lesson that Pew has learned over the years, but it bears repeating occasionally because of its importance: High-quality project leaders and teammates are a prerequisite for undertaking these challenging projects.

International campaigns differ from those operating within a single country. Decision making in international bodies like the U.N. is driven by consensus rather than a majority. Strategies will be most effective in aiming for a point of compromise that will bring opponents together and advance their respective interests in the prevailing decision-making climate. One priority for campaign leadership is to forecast roughly where that compromise point may lie, build a clear understanding of this point among campaign leadership and partners, and then nudge parties toward a final agreement while refining objectives and tactics as appropriate to reflect ongoing changes in the political landscape.

Change in the international arena takes time. The coalition campaign lasted about 30 months. The speed with which the issue of bottom trawling moved up the international fisheries agenda is remarkable and should be viewed as an exception rather than the rule. Most international campaigns will take longer.

To sum up, the U.N. General Assembly resolution of 2006 did not place an outright moratorium on bottom trawling but is seen by marine experts consulted for this evaluation as a significant step forward in ocean conservation. Though the long-term effectiveness of the U.N. action as ocean conservation policy remains to be seen, the preponderance of early evidence suggests reason for optimism. These achievements speak to the soundness of the coalition team and of Pew’s decision to invest and participate in the campaign.

Scott B. Scrivner is an officer in Planning and Evaluation, and Lester W. Baxter is director of Planning and Evaluation at Pew.

For more information on this department, visit the Planning and Evaluation section of Pew's Web site.

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