Global fisheries are worth more than US$140 billion each year, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. But this hefty sum does not capture the true value of fish to ocean health, and to the food security and cultures of communities around the world.
Unfortunately, many important populations were allowed to be overfished for decades by the same regional fisheries management organizations (RFMOs) charged with their conservation and sustainable use, and in some regions, this continues. At the same time, the demand for fish continues to grow—from consumers of high-end bluefin tuna sushi to coastal communities who depend on seafood as their primary source of protein. So, RFMOs and governments must do more to ensure sustainable fishing and long-term ocean health.
More than 20 years ago, the United Nations Fish Stocks Agreement (UNFSA) entered into force as the only global, binding instrument holding governments accountable for managing the shared fish stocks of the high seas. Under the agreement, fish should be managed sustainably and consistent with the best available science. Governments that are party to this treaty—and to RFMOs—are supposed to follow its management obligations, and work towards greater sustainability of the transboundary species, including tunas and sharks, vital to the ocean and economies.
Five of those RFMOs focus specifically on tuna management, one each in the Atlantic, eastern Pacific, western and central Pacific, Indian, and Southern oceans. They operate autonomously and, although there is some overlap among their constituent members, each sets its own rules for tuna fishing in its waters. This makes UNFSA critical to successful management of tuna fisheries. And because the tuna RFMOs manage some of the world’s most iconic species, they often set the tone for how other similar bodies operate.
All of this is pertinent now because UNFSA member governments are meeting in New York May 22-26 to evaluate whether RFMOs are performing consistent with their commitments. A similar review was conducted in 2016, and although management has improved over time, some areas require more work, especially when it comes to ending overfishing and considering the health and biodiversity of the entire ecosystem. Since 2016, the share of highly migratory stocks that are overfished increased from 36% to 40%, making it all the more urgent for governments to act quickly.
UNFSA calls on RFMOs to be precautionary in how they regulate fishing, although that guidance is not always followed. There are several examples of extensive overfishing of target species, such as bluefin tuna in the Atlantic and Pacific oceans; yellowfin tuna in the Indian Ocean; and mako, oceanic whitetip sharks and other species that are caught unintentionally.
Although the RFMOs that manage these fisheries have stopped the overfishing in some cases, in others they have not. But there are signs of progress. Over the past decade, a new precautionary management approach known as harvest strategies has gained traction among RFMOs. These strategies (or management procedures) are science-based rules that automatically adjust catch limits based on several factors, such as population status. If widely implemented, they should end overfishing and prevent it from threatening these populations again.
Harvest strategies have already been successful, particularly in the Southern and Atlantic oceans, where they’ve been adopted for several species, including bluefin tuna and cod, fish stocks for which precautionary management has historically been difficult, or even controversial.
While this progress is important, UNFSA members are still falling short in an area they have agreed is critically important: taking an ecosystem approach to management. For generations, fisheries managers focused on individual fish stocks—adopting catch limits and other measures with little thought to the broader ecosystem. Science shows that maintaining ecosystem health is critical to sustainable fishing. Yet, to date, RFMOs largely have not consistently assessed or addressed the wider impacts of fishing on ecosystems, including predator-prey relationships, habitat for target and non-target species, and other factors. Instead, most action has been limited to reducing the impact of bycatch on individual shark species. Better data collection and sharing, and more monitoring of fishing activities, could help integrate stronger ecosystem considerations into management. The more RFMOs can build the whole ecosystem into their decisions, the better it will be for their fisheries.
For example, in the western and central Pacific, the $10 billion skipjack tuna fishery is an enormous economic driver for island nations that are threatened by climate change. But the harvest strategy in place there is nonbinding and unimplemented. For a fishery facing changes in stock distribution due to warming waters, as well as increased market pressures, delayed action on implementation—and a lack of an ecosystem approach—may make matters worse.
At this week’s UNFSA meeting, RFMOs should be commended for the work they have done in the seven years since the last review. Good progress has been made, including improvements to compliance efforts, and monitoring and enforcement to fight illegal fishing. But many of the legal obligations of the treaty remain unfulfilled. As such, sustainability is still out of reach for some critically important stocks, and almost no ecosystem-based protections are in place. As governments convene this week, they should look to the lessons of the past—when poor decision-making threatened the future of some fisheries—and seize the opportunity to modernize management and adhere to the promises they have made on conservation. The biodiversity in the world’s ocean shouldn’t have to wait another seven years for action.
Grantly Galland leads policy work related to regional fisheries management organizations for The Pew Charitable Trusts’ international fisheries project.