To Improve Fisheries Health and Safety at Sea, U.N. Delegates Must Act Now

Committee on Fisheries can fight illegal fishing and advance other reforms when it meets in Rome

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To Improve Fisheries Health and Safety at Sea, U.N. Delegates Must Act Now
Fishing crew
At the Sept. 5-9 meeting of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization's Committee on Fisheries, member States must work to improve oversight and sustainability of global fisheries.
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With over a third of assessed global fish populations overfished and more than half are fished to their sustainable limits, pressure is mounting on governments around the world to step up and reverse this strain on ocean life and ecosystems.

They have a chance to start doing just that when the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization’s Committee on Fisheries (COFI) meets Sept. 5-9 in Rome to address the sustainability challenges facing global fish stocks and how to better oversee industrial, small-scale, and artisanal fishing operations while protecting workers in that subsector.

The latest report from the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), released in June, shows that 35.5% of assessed fish stocks are overfished and that more than 57% cannot sustain further increases in fishing. Also, fishing remains one of the world’s most dangerous professions, with inadequate global safety standards in place to keep fishers from injury or death; in fact, no one knows the true human cost of fishing. And the COVID-19 pandemic has forced human observers off boats and limited valuable face-to-face negotiation and discussion opportunities, further reducing the transparency of on-the-water activities and exacerbating some fisheries management challenges.

COFI member governments should take immediate steps to encourage improved oversight of global fishing activities and work to end illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing, which undermines sustainable management. They can do this by:

  • Endorsing voluntary guidelines to improve monitoring and control of transshipment, the transfer of fish or other marine wildlife between a fishing vessel and a carrier vessel at sea or in port. This step would help create an international framework governing a key part of the seafood supply chain and encourage better data sharing and cooperative efforts among governments.
  • Adopting the Global Information Exchange System (GIES) as soon as the pilot phase is complete. This system allows parties to the Port State Measures Agreement to meet obligations to share information on vessel reports and note where vessels have been denied port access. This sharing would help inform port and coastal States on where vessels have been, what they caught, and information on inspections to prevent illegally caught fish from reaching the market.
  • Supporting the development of a systematic and shared system of fishing vessel identifying markers that allow the use of technology to improve understanding of the distribution of fishing vessels globally, enabling better monitoring and tracking, and making it easier to identify illegal operators. Members should also support the call for a consultation process to explore an agreement among COFI member States on sharing vessel tracking information to help authorities know every commercial fishing vessel’s identity, what it is authorized to do, and where it has been operating.
  • Finally, strengthening compliance with international fishing rules is critical. Regional fisheries management organizations (RFMOs) play an important role in combating IUU fishing and sustainably managing fish stocks. RFMOs secretariat staff are present at COFI and, along with the many FAO members who are party to one or more RFMOs, have an obligation to strengthen compliance with fisheries management measures and should discuss how they might accomplish that.

To improve safety at sea and working conditions for fishers, COFI members should work to ensure systematic collection and sharing of safety and labor-related information—specifically, by adopting more-stringent rules for accident reporting on fishing vessels and creating a global repository of data on fishing-related injury and mortality. Doing so would help governments understand the extent of the issue and, hopefully, how best to address it.

Finally, COFI members should also take action to safeguard marine habitats and ecosystems by:

  • Affirming their commitment to move toward ecosystem-based fisheries management that integrates climate mitigation and adaptation measures, reflecting that it is more than just the fishing pressures that impact ocean sustainability.
  • Encouraging the FAO to facilitate constructive engagement between RFMOs and the Biodiversity Beyond National Jurisdiction (BBNJ) Conference of Parties to support implementation of the new global treaty to protect the high seas, once it is agreed.

The COFI meeting agenda is ambitious, but the tenuous status of global fisheries demands that leaders make progress on all of these issues now. Creating a subcommittee on fisheries management, which members should agree to start next year, would provide separate and more frequent opportunities for governments to discuss the full suite of needs to manage fisheries, including the interlinkages with IUU fishing, compliance, fisher safety, and biodiversity. Doing so would both improve discussions at future COFI meetings and, more importantly, better protect the ocean, the life that calls it home, and the livelihoods of the millions of people worldwide who depend on a healthy and sustainable marine environment.

Elaine Young works on The Pew Charitable Trusts’ international fisheries project.