The fishing and seafood industries are worth billions of dollars each year globally, and almost every country plays some role in the supply chain, from fishing and processing to buying and consumption. There are more than 130 internationally managed fish stocks that could make their way to market, and sharks, rays and other species are potentially affected by the activities of those fisheries. From smaller mackerel to giant tuna, cooperation on precautionary, science-based management by all stakeholders is critical to ensuring sustainability and ecosystem health.
Regional fisheries management organizations (RFMOs), often made up of dozens of countries, set the rules for how, and how much, fish can be caught, frequently through tense multilateral negotiations. Transparency is fundamental to the negotiations, and in 1995 the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and the U.N. Fish Stocks Agreement acknowledged the benefits of such transparency, codifying that information, decision-making and outcomes should be accessible, within reason, to people with an interest.
Transparency in negotiations is proven to increase the legitimacy and buy-in of decisions regarding fishing quotas and related measures. Compliance with rules increases because there are fewer loopholes, and governments become more accountable to the rules and responsive to the people and organizations that rely upon these fisheries. Allowing observers to attend meetings and participate in discussions adds value through technical expertise and advice, research, analysis and even funding of some RFMO activities.
COVID-19 has changed the way most organizations – including RFMOs – do business. Virtual meetings pose challenges, but also present opportunities. RFMOs should be using web-based conferencing and open access to data to improve transparency and make sure decisions are clear to member governments and all observer groups, including non-governmental and industry players. But, despite these tools, lack of transparency continues and is even increasing at some RFMOs. As noted in a recent piece in the peer-reviewed journal Marine Policy, this could have real-world consequences, specifically by limiting observer non-governmental organizations’ abilities to hold RFMOs accountable and monitor their compliance efforts.
Since the pandemic began, transparency has been a concern within a number of fisheries bodies. For example, the North Pacific Fisheries Commission, which manages small pelagic and bottom fisheries, has not allowed observers to attend its small working group meetings, which are being held virtually. As a result, observers can’t participate in key discussions that may affect management decisions and the sustainability of those fisheries.
The International Scientific Committee for Tuna and Tuna-Like Species in the North Pacific Ocean, which provides stock status and conservation advice to two RFMOs on commercially significant species such as the severely depleted Pacific bluefin tuna, waited until the day before its 2020 plenary meeting to invite observers. Elsewhere, members of the North East Atlantic Fisheries Commission have for several years allowed industry representatives into annual talks on the management of individual stocks but have prevented civil society organizations from participating.
Later this year, the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission, Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission and Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC) will hold online meetings critical to conservation. Although all three allow observers to participate in working groups, WCPFC is the only one that doesn’t allow observer organizations to attend discussion of member countries’ compliance reports. According to its own legal counsel and an independent review panel, the WCPFC Convention permits greater transparency than what is currently provided. It remains to be seen how it, and the other RFMOs, will ensure transparency at these virtual meetings.
Some RFMOs may forgo virtual meetings to discuss items of importance via email. Although the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) canceled its annual meeting this November, it has left open the possibility that it will make important management and quota decisions over email. It is unclear how this will happen, or if observers will be allowed to participate or have access to government officials’ correspondence. ICCAT has already said it will finalize management advice from scientists over email, with no clear pathway for participation from NGO scientists.
As the COVID-19 pandemic persists, RFMOs should be shifting from short-term emergency measures to developing procedures and standards that will help them successfully and sustainably manage fish stocks in the new normal. Though there will always be a place for in-person meetings, this digital transformation gives RFMOs the opportunity to increase participation in decision-making and to improve transparency, rather than restricting it.
COVID-19 is an unprecedented shock to international fisheries, but it is also another reminder of the need for healthy and resilient food systems that the public can rely on. RFMOs must honor their commitments to transparency in the decisions they make regarding our shared public resources. Civil society participation – through non-governmental organizations – in RFMO deliberations and decisions is critical to transparency and to helping the general public understand fishery management decisions. Without such transparency, people could become less connected to what is happening on the water and governments may not be held accountable, harming the long-term sustainability of fisheries.
Rachel Hopkins is a senior manager and RFMO expert for Pew’s international fisheries team.