To Improve Fisheries Management Globally, U.N. Creates a New Forum

COFI subcommittee will focus on technical and cross-cutting aspects of this complex policy and strategy arena

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To Improve Fisheries Management Globally, U.N. Creates a New Forum
An underwater scene with a spotted fish in the center of the image flanked by yellow coral, with pink coral above. Much smaller orange fish swim in a school above.
To best ensure sustainable marine ecosystems, fishery managers should consider the full variety of underwater flora and fauna—not just one species—when setting catch limits and other policies.
Warren Baverstock Ocean Image Bank

The Committee on Fisheries (COFI) of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) is the only worldwide intergovernmental forum that examines international fisheries and aquaculture issues and makes recommendations to governments and regional fishery management bodies. As such, COFI has a packed agenda. And because it convenes only every other year, country representatives on the committee have struggled to have necessary in-depth discussions on pressing topics, such as combating illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing and climate change.

Now a newly created body could help: The COFI Sub-Committee on Fisheries Management will meet virtually for the first time Jan. 15-18 to address management at the technical level and consider the overlaps between fisheries and other international policy areas.

The subcommittee, which was first discussed at a COFI meeting in 2018, holds great promise to help COFI better fulfill its mission to achieve sustainable fisheries and aquaculture. The meeting should allow leaders to discuss technical details of fisheries management while understanding the big picture.  

The agenda of this first meeting includes a handful of issues that are overdue for in-depth discussion, and ideally the subcommittee will expand its ambitions over time, both in the breadth of topics that it tackles and the strength of its recommendations. This will allow COFI in its biennial meetings to focus on strategic and policy issues and better shape the direction that governments and international players take towards sustainable fisheries management in the complex arena of ocean governance.

Beyond the traditional fisheries issues

The subcommittee meeting will also include a timely discussion on the role of fisheries managers in halting and reversing biodiversity loss. This is the aim of the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework (GBF), agreed by Parties to the U.N. Convention on Biological Diversity in December 2022, which outlines a series of targets intended to embed ecosystem protections in fisheries management by 2030. Subcommittee members will discuss how to “mainstream” biodiversity conservation into day-to-day fisheries management to meet those targets, and what support they need from the FAO in elaborating on existing guidance. Translating these global aims into fisheries contexts will require international cooperation and new approaches to management and learning the lessons of early implementation in some regions.

Existing international agreements already require an ecosystem approach to fisheries management, which considers the impacts of fishing on wider marine ecosystems and interactions among species holistically. The ecosystem approach also factors in how changes in marine environments affect fisheries productivity. Managers will need to ask new questions of their scientific advisers and employ new tools in order to embed ecosystem approaches more widely in their decision-making.

The GBF also requires governments and international bodies to identify and report, by area, on the application of biodiversity-friendly practices. This is a new category of designation that allows governments to recognize conservation measures in the majority of the ocean where fishing takes place, which distinguishes those places from areas that are protected under other targets. Members will need help from the FAO and other international bodies to draw clear distinctions between the different classifications to avoid double counting or inappropriate designations—for example, where areas have some protections but still continue to allow large-scale fishing.

As part of the preparation for the subcommittee meeting, the FAO proposed a program to guide members through these requirements and highlight the tools available to put new approaches into practice. The Pew Charitable Trusts endorses that intent, and we look forward to working with all parties to ensure that fisheries managers provide the strongest possible contribution to help achieve the GBF targets, with the aim to halt and reverse biodiversity loss.

With the 36th session of COFI slated for July 2024, we believe this first meeting of the fisheries management subcommittee provides fisheries managers the required platform for productive debate that leads to strong recommendations to that governing body. We hope that attendees and others will agree after the meeting that it was a resounding success. We would then look forward to State authorities coming forward with extra-budgetary funding support to deliver on actions agreed in the meeting. This is crucial to ensuring regularity of these meetings and, ideally, maturation to in-person deliberations with equitable participation from representatives around the globe, including developing FAO Members.

Dawn Borg Costanzi is a senior manager and Andrew Clayton is a project director with The Pew Charitable Trusts’ international fisheries project.

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