Rules for economically, ecologically, and culturally significant international fisheries—such as those for tuna and billfish species—are agreed to by governments cooperating through bodies known as regional fisheries management organizations, or RFMOs. The management boundaries of RFMOs span roughly 90% of the ocean’s surface, and their decisions on how to manage these fisheries have major implications for the future health of these stocks and the fisheries, communities and ecosystems that depend on them.
Despite this, RFMOs often lack the resources, data and coordination among member governments to effectively manage their fisheries and ensure that vessels are complying with the rules. In an era of increased demand for transparency and accountability over natural resource exploitation, it is now vital that RFMOs modernize fisheries management, such as by ensuring effective compliance reviews, improving transparency and effectively following up on infractions.
When The Pew Charitable Trusts and the International Seafood Sustainability Foundation (ISSF) set out to host a series of expert workshops about compliance in RFMOs, two questions came to the fore: How does a lack of compliance undermine fisheries management? And how can governments work together to incentivize and enforce adherence to the rules? The workshops, which occurred in September 2020 and March 2021, each brought together more than 30 experts from RFMO secretariats and compliance committees, including from all five tuna RFMOs, international organizations, academia and nongovernmental organizations, to discuss the compliance challenges facing RFMOs and potential solutions.
The workshops identified several challenges that hinder compliance. In some cases, lack of clarity in rules results in ambiguous, or even conflicting, reporting requirements for governments and vessels. When coupled with the large volume of data that should be transmitted to compliance committees—yet with no efficient way to review it among some RFMOs—and an overreliance on unverifiable government data, it is difficult for compliance committees to be effective. This in turn leads to a lack of trust among actors, and inconsistent follow-up on infractions makes it tough for RFMOs to strengthen compliance regimes or even address persistent violations. These challenges undermine RFMOs' work to support sustainable fisheries.
These challenges are not insurmountable, however, and the experts participating in the workshops offered solutions that could lead to stronger enforcement and greater transparency across fisheries. They suggest that RFMOs draft specific measures to clarify obligations and reporting requirements to end confusion caused by unclear or conflicting rules. Additionally, RFMOs should work to streamline reporting requirements, including easily accessible summarized data with regular, systematic reviews. This would reduce the overwhelming amount of data that RFMOs review and, coupled with increased capacity, help them better evaluate compliance. Finally, RFMOs must define in advance how they will respond to noncompliance on the part of vessels or governments to ensure greater accountability. A third experts’ workshop in November 2021 will focus on these issues by looking at RFMO compliance review mechanisms.
With improved compliance regimes, RFMOs can ensure that the fish populations they manage are more sustainable and that those catching the fish are held accountable. By participating in the Pew and ISSF workshops, many fisheries managers and stakeholders have already shown a desire to make progress. Now, it is time for all governments that are party to RFMOs, in addition to others in a position of influence, to put words into action and build stronger compliance efforts into the vitally important work of effectively managing fisheries.
Robin Davies works on The Pew Charitable Trusts’ international fisheries project.
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