Highly migratory fish species, including tunas, sharks, and billfish, are worth billions of dollars to the global fishing industry each year, and play a pivotal role in food security, ocean-reliant economies, and ecosystems. To secure a sustainable future for these valuable high seas fisheries, the regional fisheries management organizations (RFMOs) that oversee them need not only strong conservation and management measures, but also effective compliance systems to ensure that member governments and their fleets are accountable to the rules. Unfortunately, non-compliance by RFMO member States—sometimes through illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing activities, at times with serious and repeated violations—has been a persistent challenge, undermining RFMOs’ ability to manage fisheries sustainably.
Last month, the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission (IATTC), which manages tuna stocks in the eastern Pacific worth $5.14 billion annually at the final point of sale, took steps to improve its compliance process. In one of its most significant changes, IATTC committed to more transparent and structured reviews of member governments’ compliance, and it also agreed to include “compliance improvements” as a permanent agenda item at each annual meeting.
Steps taken by IATTC align with a set of recently published expert recommendations—arising from a process initiated by The Pew Charitable Trusts and the International Seafood Sustainability Foundation (ISSF) and outlined below—that were formulated to help RFMOs design and implement effective compliance regimes. To ensure that they are following best practices for compliance and securing the long-term health of the fisheries they manage, it is critical that other RFMOs across the globe follow suit.
The critical themes to improve compliance
To help RFMOs and their member governments improve compliance, Pew and the ISSF convened a series of expert workshops in 2020 and 2021 to identify challenges in RFMO compliance review and develop solutions to strengthen these processes. These initial findings were reviewed by some of the world’s foremost compliance experts, representing interests from RFMOs, national fisheries ministries, environmental law, and non-governmental organizations. The resulting recommendations should help RFMOs design and implement effective compliance review processes or strengthen existing regimes.
The recommendations are organised under the following 10 themes that reflect the various stages and aspects of compliance review at RFMOs:
- Establish and govern compliance assessment processes: Compliance review should be conducted through clearly mandated compliance committees, with supportive structures such as working groups, and with a clear process for the participation of observers.
- Obligations to be assessed: The establishment of Member State obligations by RFMOs must be clear, consistent, non-duplicitous, and supported by an effective assessment mechanism.
- Data submission: Information submitted to RFMOs must be of a high quality, timely, accurate, and verifiable.
- Data collation, analysis, and presentation: RFMOs must establish a consistent, accessible, and accountable way for members to submit data.
- Evaluate compliance implementation: RFMOs should develop tools that allow them to focus limited resources on tackling the most serious identified infractions.
- Decision-making: States must develop and implement mechanisms in ways that facilitate decision-making and prevent deadlocks in the compliance assessments.
- Compliance responses: RFMOS and members must have mechanisms in place to effectively address infractions either through RFMO actions or domestic processes.
- Capacity of developing states: RFMOs should make every effort to build capacity in developing countries that might otherwise struggle to participate effectively in the RFMO compliance process.
- Cooperation: RFMOs should strengthen cooperation with other bodies to improve all aspects of compliance.
- Monitoring, evaluation, and review: RFMOs should regularly monitor, evaluate, and review the whole compliance review process as part of ongoing efforts to improve member compliance.
The importance of transparency
To help ensure long-term success, the recommendations include overarching guiding principles that RMFOs should consider as they implement the changes, outlining the need to be fair and impartial, legitimate, transparent, targeted, effective, efficient, and cooperative.
Transparency is a particularly important but often overlooked aspect of RFMOs’ compliance review processes. To date, observers, such as non-governmental organizations, have not always been granted full access to compliance conversations at RFMOs. But granting the public access to information about those who violate rules and jeopardize the health of fisheries is vitally important in ensuring that RFMOs are accountable to all stakeholders with interests in the shared public resources under their management. The more accountable and transparent an RFMO, the more likely it is to make decisions that favour the long-term sustainability of fish stocks.
The release of these recommendations is a milestone in the work to ensure that management of the world’s high seas fisheries is effective and sustainable. Pew urges all RFMOs to ensure that these recommendations form an integral part of their efforts to encourage and improve member compliance and reduce opportunities for illegal activities to go undetected and unaddressed. Recognising that every RFMO has its own priorities, strengths, and weaknesses, these new recommendations will allow each RFMO to evaluate and tailor its compliance review processes to identify where changes can—and should—be implemented.
Several RFMOs are already taking important steps by developing and implementing a wide array of tools, such as grading the severity of infractions so that limited resources can be directed to the most pressing issues, increasing the transparency of the process, and bolstering the capacity needed for effective compliance review. However, much more needs to be done.
When the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas and the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission meet this later this year, they should be the next two RFMOs to seriously consider—and improve—how compliance works in their regions. We encourage them to take similar steps to IATTC and continue the important work of improving member compliance.
Robin Davies works on The Pew Charitable Trusts’ international fisheries project.