When International Fisheries Management Went Virtual, Conservation Suffered

New guidelines from Pew should help regional organizations regain efficiency—and effectiveness

When International Fisheries Management Went Virtual, Conservation Suffered
Virtual meeting
In an era of virtual meetings, decision-making must be transparent in order to ensure effective fisheries management.
Chris Montgomery @cwmonty

Before a piece of tuna sashimi is presented to a diner, or a can of albacore makes its way to a sandwich, the fish must be caught and taken to market, ideally according to rules regarding where, when and how much fish can be taken from the water. These rules are determined by countries working collectively to formulate policies through regional fisheries management organizations, or RFMOs.

But for the past year, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the way in which countries and RFMOs have been meeting and making decisions virtually has changed—and in many cases they are failing to meet their obligations.

To enable RFMOs to swiftly resume their important responsibilities and make the best use of the virtual format, The Pew Charitable Trusts is putting forward a list of recommendations for effective and transparent RFMO decision-making. This list was drawn from the experience and lessons of 2020, and we hope it will guide decision makers in their efforts to successfully fulfil their work on fisheries conservation and management this year and beyond.

As noted in a recent piece in the peer-reviewed journal Marine Policy, many RFMOs delayed developing and adopting vitally important conservation measures in 2020. Most of the RFMOs limited their meeting agendas to time-sensitive and administrative proceedings, and they often cut short by half the amount of time spent in their meetings.

The virtual process that RFMOs have used over the past year may be less effective at delivering progressive outcomes, compared with the physical meeting format. For example, for the first time, the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission closed its annual session without agreement on tropical tuna management in the eastern Pacific Ocean—a move that would have left billion-dollar fisheries in a huge area of ocean without any rules. Only after an outcry from industry and advocacy groups did governments hold an emergency session and come to an agreement for 2021 management. This is no way to manage vital shared resources.

If this status quo continues, there will be real-world impacts on the fish populations that people and industries across the globe rely on for food, jobs and ways of life. Worldwide, RFMOs manage more than 130 fish stocks, and fishing for them affects many other species, including sharks, rays, dolphins and more, along with overall ocean health.

For example, without cooperation on precautionary science-based measures, including harvest strategies, the sustainability of species from smaller mackerel to giant tuna is at risk, as is ecosystem health. And an inability to agree to new measures or assess compliance could offer more opportunity for illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing.

By following Pew’s recommendations, RFMOs would improve the transparency of information and discussions. Further, organizations that adopt the recommendations would be better able to reach agreement on pressing conservation issues and other key business, not only in the virtual setting but with the eventual return of in-person meetings as well. The recommendations include:

  • Communicating meeting expectations early and clearly to participants. If RFMOs expect to meet virtually, they should commit to and announce that as soon as possible and should publish procedures for conduct for each meeting, along with agendas and timetables so that members and observers can prepare effectively.
  • Preparing in advance to make the best use of decision-making meetings. For example, RFMOs should use intersessional virtual discussions, produce pre-meeting documents with member input and use tools such as online chat rooms and pre-recorded presentations to make best use of the limited time for actual decision-making and identify in advance potential areas of cooperation or stumbling blocks.
  • Creating formats and processes more conducive to reaching consensus and fulfilling mandates. Meeting organizers should limit agendas to the most important conservation needs, including advancement of approaches that support automated management and oversight, such as robust, pre-agreed harvest strategies, effective compliance systems, and electronic monitoring and reporting schemes.

    In advance of key meetings, RFMOs should also clearly outline decisions that need to be made and the consequences of not reaching agreement, such as putting a fail-safe system in place to ensure that lack of agreement does not result in an unregulated fishery or rollover of a measure not in line with the best available science. Further, RFMOs should discuss significant items in shorter time blocks over successive days, versus in marathon sessions, to give negotiators time to canvass their delegations, other governments and stakeholders. And organizations should provide real-time annotation when delegates and others address meetings live to allow participants to track government positions—a particularly helpful feature when online meetings are interrupted by internet outages.

  • Empowering the meeting chair to lead members expeditiously through the agenda. They could do this by drafting text to identify potential areas of agreement, publishing detailed meeting reports and announcing impactful decisions through public circulars.

It is critical that RFMO Secretariats, chairs and members immediately implement these practices. The 2021 virtual RFMO meetings are already in full swing, and a recent survey found that more than half of the RFMOs reported their decision-making hampered by the pandemic in 2020. This cannot be repeated this year.

Fortunately, digital and virtual meeting tools also present opportunities to improve over business as usual. RFMOs have the chance to use web-based conferencing and provide open access to data to improve transparency to member governments and observer groups, including non-governmental and industry players alike. And, by adopting more modern approaches to management—such as electronic technologies and rigorous science-based harvest strategies—RFMOs have the opportunity to emerge from the pandemic better able to make more effective decisions and achieve sustainable long-term fisheries management.

Amanda Nickson is a director and Rachel Hopkins is a senior manager with The Pew Charitable Trusts’ international fisheries team.

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