Each of the bodies responsible for managing tuna species has stocks below the size required to support maximum sustainable yield.
Each of the bodies responsible for managing tuna species has stocks below the size required to support maximum sustainable yield.
World leaders adopted the United Nations Fish Stocks Agreement1 (UNFSA) in 1995 to "ensure the long-term conservation and sustainable use of straddling fish stocks and highly migratory fish stocks." The Agreement, which has been in force since 2001, is the primary international instrument for encouraging countries to undertake the cooperation essential to manage shared fish stocks. Neither the biology nor the ecology of these fishes respects the legal boundaries separating the waters of nations. That means these stocks cannot be managed by any single State. The UNFSA obligates its parties to work together to ensure that the stocks are fished sustainably, in accordance with the best science available, and to use an ecosystem-based approach that accounts for their value in the ocean’s broader web of life.
The Agreement’s provisions represent more than best practices: They are legal obligations. Governments that have agreed to it must follow its requirements in their roles as Members of regional fishery management organizations (RFMOs), the international bodies empowered to manage fish populations. The UNFSA’s principles and obligations have been instrumental in shaping the specific legal frameworks and management measures of RFMOs, as well as other international legal instruments,2 such as the United Nations Port State Measures Agreement (PSMA), adopted by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations in 2009.
The parties to the UNFSA have convened twice to review its implementation: at a Review Conference in 20063 and at a resumed Review Conference in 2010.4 Each meeting produced recommendations to improve cooperation and better manage global stocks.5 The parties will conduct a third review in May 2016.
This brief examines the progress made in implementing the Fish Stocks Agreement, based on a review of the status of certain highly migratory stocks and the effectiveness of RFMO measures in meeting specific mandates. It also looks at whether recommendations made in prior reviews have been implemented. This is not a quantitative analysis, nor is it a comprehensive review of the implementation of all provisions. Rather, it is a qualitative assessment of the performance of RFMO Member States with respect to specific conservation objectives that The Pew Charitable Trusts sees as priorities. Because it is intended to provide only an indicative overview, it examines the workings of RFMOs focused on the management of tuna and tuna-like species.6 Better implementation of certain provisions by these organizations has been a focus of Pew’s work. These bodies are responsible for the management of key pelagic fisheries across 90 percent of the global ocean. In addition, tuna fisheries are a pillar in food security and economic stability. For these reasons, the tuna RFMOs provide an important model for reviewing the success of the Agreement as a policy tool to achieve sustainability in global fisheries.
The review of steps taken by the five tuna RFMOs shows some progress in adopting harvest strategies, which are the pre-agreed-upon frameworks for making fisheries management decisions such as how and when to set quotas. These strategies include specific rules designed to ensure that action is taken when stock sizes or fishing breach science-based reference points. Still, progress has been limited. No management body has adopted harvest strategies for more than 25 percent of a region’s stocks.
The Agreement also requires that all RFMOs maintain reasonably healthy fish populations. But this assessment finds that each of the bodies responsible for managing tuna species has stocks below the size required to support maximum sustainable yield (MSY), the largest average catch that can be taken from a stock without significantly affecting reproduction. Many of these populations also lack management plans that would support a recovery.
Four of the five RFMOs also have not taken sufficient steps to better protect threatened shark species found in the fisheries under their management. None has yet implemented science-based management plans for all shark species associated with its region’s fisheries.
Still, governments are making progress toward ending illegal fishing. The RFMOs all have improved their ability to identify vessels by requiring that any vessels fishing in their convention areas have International Maritime Organization (IMO) numbers, the seven-digit code administered by IHS Maritime. Implementation of these mandates is ongoing, as all regions have registries that still list vessels without IMO numbers. Similarly, these bodies have moved to mandate use of electronic vessel monitoring systems (VMS) in their convention areas, another important step. But they must act to make sure that these systems are effective.
In addition to identifying and tracking fishing vessels, strong port controls are among the most efficient ways for governments to catch those breaking the rules. Only three of the five tuna RFMOs have adopted port State controls, which must be better integrated into national and regional processes to be effective.
The analysis illustrates that implementation of the Fish Stocks Agreement has been inconsistent. Many stocks remain overfished, with some facing imminent danger of collapse. At the same time, parties to the various RFMOs are often unable to act because they cannot reach consensus. The management organizations can be effective only if Members have the political will to adopt measures that achieve the aims of the Agreement.
As noted in the United Nations Secretary-General’s report submitted to this Review Conference,7 the overall status of highly migratory fish stocks and straddling fish stocks has not improved since the first Review Conference in 2006.8 Since 2010, the overall status of highly migratory fish stocks9 and straddling stocks10 has declined. Where information exists for shark species, 60 percent remain potentially overexploited or depleted.11
Previous reviews of the UNFSA, as well as RFMO performance reviews, have provided recommendations for properly implementing the Agreement. However, progress has been slow at best.
If the third review of the Fish Stocks Agreement is to achieve more than previous efforts, it cannot result in another series of recommendations that are not implemented effectively. Instead, the review must provide an accurate assessment of parties’ compliance with existing measures, recognition of the need for all to meet their legal obligations, and a commitment to more rapid progress.
The Fish Stocks Agreement stipulates that “States shall apply the precautionary approach widely ... in order to protect the living marine resources and preserve the marine environment.”12 As elaborated in the text, this means being "more cautious when information is uncertain, unreliable or inadequate." In addition, the absence of scientific information cannot "be used as a reason for postponing or failing to take conservation and management measures."13
RFMOs can meet their duty to apply the precautionary approach by, among other things, establishing target and limit reference points to help maintain or restore stocks to MSY.
Article 6.3(b) of the Agreement requires States cooperating through RFMOs to implement the precautionary approach by determining stock-specific reference points based on fishing mortality or stock size and to commit to act if those reference points are breached. Annex II of the Agreement spells out how these reference points should be established, calling for the adoption of two types—conservation, or limit, reference points and management, or target, reference points.
According to the Agreement, “limit reference points set boundaries that are intended to constrain harvesting within safe biological limits within which the stocks can produce maximum sustainable yield.”14 These points represent the outer boundary of sustainable fishing.
Target reference points "are intended to meet management objectives"15 and should not be exceeded, “on average.”16 When stock size drops below or fishing mortality rises above a set reference point, managers implement a “pre-agreed conservation and management action,” known as a “harvest control rule.” The details depend on whether a target or limit has been breached.
Harvest control rules triggered at or near the target reference point are intended to return or maintain the stock at the target. Rules triggered at the limit reference point are intended to return a stock to biologically safe levels and prevent a crash. Under severe circumstances, managers may have to close a fishery that has breached a reference point until the stock recovers. According to the Agreement, management strategies should ensure that the risk of breaching the limit reference point is “very low.”17
Annex II notes that “the fishing mortality rate which generates MSY should be regarded as a minimum standard for limit reference points” (emphasis added). In practice, this requires setting target reference points above MSY to ensure that overfishing does not occur, while limit reference points should be no higher than MSY and have a very low probability of being exceeded.
Although some progress has been made toward implementing precautionary target and limit reference points, few have actually been designated; and of those that have, few satisfy the requirements of the Agreement. A limited number of species are currently managed based on these targets. This failure must be addressed to bring parties to the Agreement into compliance with their obligations.
Article 5 requires States working within RFMOs to adopt measures “to ensure long-term sustainability” of fish stocks “based on the best scientific evidence available.” These measures must be “designed to maintain or restore stocks at levels capable of producing maximum sustainable yield, as qualified by relevant environmental and economic factors.” States must “apply the precautionary approach” in development and implementation.
The Agreement does not include specific timelines to rebuild stocks, but following the objective standard of MSY and the goal of using the best available science should reduce political influence on setting catch limits and rebuilding targets.
While a few depleted tuna stocks, such as eastern Atlantic bluefin, are on the road to recovery, many stocks managed by the five tuna RFMOs continue to be overfished and to experience overfishing. The failure of Member governments to ensure recovery of depleted stocks means they are not meeting their obligations under UNFSA. This issue must be addressed at the highest level and could be a vital outcome of the conference.
Article 5(d) of the UNFSA requires that States cooperate to "assess the impacts of fishing, other human activities and environmental factors on target stocks and species belonging to the same ecosystem or associated with or dependent upon the target stocks." Subpart 5(e) provides that they must "adopt, where necessary, conservation and management measures for species belonging to the same ecosystem or associated with or dependent upon the target stocks, with a view to maintaining or restoring populations of such species above levels at which their reproduction may become seriously threatened."
Sharks are among the species most threatened by fishing for tuna. For this reason, the resumed Review Conference in 2010 recommended that States, individually and through RFMOs, “strengthen the conservation and management of sharks.”47 Among the steps that could help accomplish that ambition are species-specific data collection requirements for sharks and development of conservation and management measures for these sharks, whether caught in directed fisheries or as bycatch. As such, shark conservation is not only an important responsibility for the RFMOs, but it also serves as a proxy for determining whether obligations to implement the ecosystem approach are being fulfilled.
No RFMO has taken sufficient action to fully manage the sharks caught in significant numbers in waters under its competence, and the fisheries managed are major contributors to the global decline of large pelagic sharks. In addition, members of several RFMOs have cited incomplete information as the rationale for delaying or rejecting proposals to take needed conservation actions. That is contrary to their obligations under the Agreement to apply the precautionary approach. For vulnerable shark and ray species, this inaction could lead to stock collapse, as seen for oceanic whitetip sharks globally.72
Improvements in data collection will not improve stock health without a better application of the precautionary approach. Debates about the proper definition of shark catch, whether targeted or as bycatch, should not prevent effective management by RFMO parties. Conservation measures that apply the ecosystem approach must be implemented without delay. When data are unavailable, all shark catch should be prohibited until appropriate management measures can be put in place to guarantee sustainability of catch for these vulnerable species.
The Fish Stocks Agreement provides a framework for ensuring that the conservation and management measures adopted by States and RFMOs are implemented. Toward this end, the Agreement obligates flag and port States to exert control over vessels under their respective jurisdictions, including through enhanced regional cooperation. To assess RFMO performance, it is important to examine whether measures are in place and being implemented, as well as whether they achieve their intended purpose.
Article 18(d) imposes on flag States a duty to require "marking of fishing vessels and fishing gear for identification in accordance with uniform and internationally recognizable vessel and gear marking systems."
Since the adoption of the Fish Stocks Agreement, the international community has reached a consensus about the need to improve identification of fishing vessels by requiring the use of unique and permanent identification numbers. These numbers will help achieve the 2010 resumed Review Conference’s call to "[e]xpedite efforts ... to create a unique vessel identifier system as part of a comprehensive global record of fishing vessels." That then will help with efforts to combat illegal fishing. In 2013, the IMO removed an exception for fishing vessels from its "IMO numbering scheme." Since then, RFMOs have moved swiftly toward mandating IMO numbers for all authorized vessels.
Between 2013 and 2015, nine RFMOs adopted requirements for the numbers, which cost nothing to obtain. Most took effect by 1 January 2016. Despite this important progress, RFMO Member States continue to authorize vessels without the identification numbers to fish in convention areas. RFMOs should extend the requirements to active fishing vessels of any size to ensure that all can be identified.
Article 18.3(e) requires "recording and timely reporting of vessel position, catch of target and non-target species, fishing effort and other relevant fisheries data in accordance with subregional, regional and global standards for collection of such data." Article 18.3(g)(iii) mandates flag States to conduct monitoring, control, and surveillance of their vessels. To do that, the Agreement calls for "the development and implementation of vessel monitoring systems (VMS), including, as appropriate, satellite transmitter systems, in accordance with any national programs and those which have been subregionally, regionally or globally agreed among the States concerned." Annex I includes standard requirements for collection of data, including on vessel positioning and fishing activity.
Most RFMOs mandate some form of fishing vessel monitoring using VMS, for either all authorized vessels or vessels over a certain size. With some exceptions, however, most RFMO-mandated systems do not ensure that the data are sufficiently accurate or require that data be shared with authorities. In addition, VMS requirements have not been fully implemented by some States because of limited capacity or other challenges. RFMOs continue to include non-compliant vessels in their lists of vessels authorized to fish in their convention areas.
Article 23 provides that a port State has the right and “the duty to take measures, in accordance with international law, to promote the effectiveness of subregional, regional and global conservation and management measures.” Port States “may adopt regulations empowering the relevant national authorities to prohibit landings and transshipments where it has been established that the catch has been taken in a manner which undermines the effectiveness of subregional, regional or global conservation and management measures on the high seas.”
Port State controls play an instrumental role in preventing the entry of illegal fish into the world’s markets by removing economic incentives for illegal operators and ensuring compliance with management measures. The controls, however, require broad application to be effective. The 2010 resumed Review Conference encouraged “States to consider becoming party to the Agreement on Port State Measures to Prevent, Deter and Eliminate Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated Fishing of the FAO,” known as the PSMA, and to adopt port State measures through RFMOs that are consistent with the Agreement. Several RFMOs have reviewed their measures on port controls or have considered new ones. Only a few have fully aligned their provisions with the PSMA, and some have not agreed to minimum standards on port inspections. Implementation of already adopted measures is irregular.
The major RFMOs have made progress since the Agreement’s last review conference in 2010, but much remains to be done. Many recommendations from previous conferences and performance reviews are not yet in place.
According to the secretary-general’s recent report, "The Review Conference presents an important opportunity for parties to the Agreement, together with non-parties, intergovernmental organizations, the fishing industry, civil society and other stakeholders, to contribute to the continuing efforts to improve the state of the oceans and their resources."89 Pew urges those taking part in this year’s resumed Review Conference to seize this chance to re-evaluate efforts to uphold the Agreement and take steps to ensure that its provisions are fully integrated into RFMO decision-making.