Regional fisheries management organizations (RFMOs) are mandated to act in the public interest by protecting the long-term sustainability of international fish stocks such as tunas, marlins and sharks. However, governments participating in RFMO meetings often negotiate yearly limits for fish catch based on the interests of a small but powerful few, and often do not sufficiently represent the needs of diverse stakeholders. Under the traditional management approach, these often lengthy negotiations too frequently result in quotas that exceed scientifically advised levels and decisions that delay critical conservation action. This approach has contributed to overfishing and depletion of species, harming marine ecosystems and the communities that depend on these fish for their food and livelihoods.
Fortunately, a better, more modern approach to managing international fisheries is gaining traction—one that holds decision makers accountable to all those affected by their decisions, promotes greater transparency in fisheries management and focuses on long-term planning and sustainability. This system—known as harvest strategies or management procedures—is a science-based, precautionary set of fishing rules, agreed by all members of an RFMO in advance and tested to ensure efficacy via a computer simulation called management strategy evaluation (MSE).
Establishing groups of scientists, managers and stakeholders to steer the process is essential to the successful development of harvest strategies. These so-called “dialogue groups,” which are in place at some RFMOs but need to be used more widely, provide a critical forum to develop a transparent, collective vision for the future of fisheries and ensure high catches and healthy populations, among other objectives. It’s now time for RFMOs, particularly those that oversee tuna fisheries, which cover 90% of the ocean, to establish dialogue groups that ensure timely adoption of science-based, inclusive harvest strategies.
Bringing inclusivity to fisheries management
Dialogue groups create an iterative exchange between scientists, managers and stakeholders, increasing buy-in to the general approach and specific harvest strategy and promoting better outcomes on the water. This exchange is one of the hallmarks of the harvest strategies approach, allowing the expertise and perspectives of an array of important players to be incorporated into the process. Scientists oversee modeling the dynamics of a fishery and simulating the performance of potential harvest control rules that guide how much fish can be caught. Stakeholders—including different segments of industry, from the harvesting vessels to others along the supply chain; civil society and nongovernmental organizations; and representatives of communities reliant on these fisheries—provide experiential knowledge and views from the public on the future vision and objectives for the fishery. In some cases, the stakeholders also provide the impetus for initiating a harvest strategy, perhaps out of concern for the future of the stock and fishery, or in response to market demand. Fisheries managers ultimately make the final decisions and set both medium- and long-term objectives for the fishery and the steps they want to take to get there.
Dialogue groups are essential to the adoption of harvest strategies, and their benefits are clear. When the Northwest Atlantic Fisheries Organization (NAFO) undertook a fully tested harvest strategy for Greenland halibut in 2017, for example, the work was completed in less than a year, thanks in large part to multiple meetings of their dialogue group.
Time for RFMOs to make good on their commitments
All five tuna RFMOs have committed to develop harvest strategies, but dialogue groups are in place in only three: the Commission for the Conservation of Southern Bluefin Tuna (CCSBT), the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission (IOTC), and the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT). It’s time for the two Pacific-based tuna RFMOs to establish dialogue groups. In the eastern Pacific, the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission (IATTC) has already held several workshops and developed a strategic science plan to develop MSEs as a core component of harvest strategies, but it must take the next step of creating a formal structure to support its harvest strategy discussions. Members of the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC), which manages over half of the tuna caught worldwide, have agreed a workplan for the development of harvest strategies for skipjack and south Pacific albacore in 2022, but they must heed the call of their own scientists to establish a dialogue group at this year’s meeting and schedule its first session for 2022. At both IATTC and WCPFC, scientists leading the MSE process need greater feedback from managers and stakeholders to ensure the models reflect their priorities for the fisheries and stocks. And without greater cooperation and involvement of managers, the results will not appear responsive to their interests.
Non-tuna RFMOs and other fisheries management bodies should also follow suit. For instance, the North Pacific Fisheries Commission, which oversees commercially important small pelagic fisheries, should expand its planned working group of scientists, managers and technical experts to include stakeholders when discussing potential harvest control rules and future harvest strategy for the Pacific saury species.
Harvest strategies bring fisheries management into the 21st century by being more transparent and science-based and ensuring that governments are accountable to their international commitments. Although RFMOs have embraced harvest strategies as a concept and created workplans and timelines for progressing certain elements of the approach, the pace of work must increase. Implementing a harvest strategy can put a fishery on the path to a sustainable future, and a dialogue group is an upfront investment in that future.
Rachel Hopkins is a project director and Ashley Wilson is an officer with The Pew Charitable Trusts’ international fisheries project.