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The adoption of the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea established a revolutionary approach for the sustainable use of our oceans, by defining the rights and responsibilities of nations and establishing guidelines for businesses, environment protection and management of marine natural resources, including fisheries resources. This paved the way for the evolution of the fisheries conservation, management and governance frameworks, with several international fisheries instruments, both voluntary and binding, being adopted in the following decades.
Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries
The Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries, drawn up by FAO to strengthen the international legal framework for more effective conservation, management and sustainable exploitation and production of living aquatic resources, has served, for over 20 years, as the principal global reference instrument for the sustainable development of the fisheries and aquaculture sectors. The Code is directed towards all stakeholders, including States, fishing entities, international organizations and entities involved in the management, conservation, trade and utilization of fisheries resources. It is intended to help countries and groups of countries to develop or improve their fisheries and aquaculture, whilst ensuring the long-term sustainable use of fisheries resources and habitat conservation, and guaranteeing food security and alleviating poverty in fishing communities.
The Code sets out principles and international standards of behaviour for responsible practices, with due respect for the ecosystem and biodiversity, and recognizes the nutritional, economic, social, environmental and cultural importance of fisheries, and the interests of all those concerned with the fishery sector. It provides a reference framework for national and international efforts, including the formulation of policies and other legal and institutional frameworks and instruments, to ensure sustainable exploitation of aquatic living resources in harmony with the environment. Furthermore, it promotes, inter alia, the contribution of fisheries to food security and food quality, responsible trade of fish and fishery products, research on fisheries, ecosystems and environmental factors, the protection of living aquatic resources and their environments, cooperation in conservation of fisheries resources, and fisheries management and development.
Despite persisting shortfalls in implementation of the Code and constraints faced by stakeholders, considerable developments in relation to the six core chapters of the Code have taken place since its adoption at national, regional and global levels. Notable progress has been recorded in the monitoring of the status of several fish stocks, compilation of statistics on catch and fishing effort and the application of the Ecosystem Approach to Fisheries. The control of fishing operations within EEZs is considered, nowadays, to be much stronger while less so in areas beyond national jurisdiction. Steps are being taken to combat IUU fishing, to prevent the further build-up of fishing overcapacity and / or reduce it, as well as to implement plans for the protection and conservation of sharks and seabirds. Food safety and quality assurance has progressively been given prime importance and mitigation measures to address post-harvest losses, by-catch problems, together with illegal processing and trading, are increasingly being applied worldwide. The growth of responsible aquaculture has been remarkable, with several countries having established procedures to conduct environmental assessments of aquaculture operations, to monitor operations and to minimize harmful effects of alien species introduction.
The Code specifically addresses the protection of marine ecosystems and biodiversity, providing that “Fisheries management should promote the maintenance of the quality, diversity and availability of fishery resources in sufficient quantities for present and future generations in the context of food security, poverty alleviation and sustainable development. Management measures should not only ensure the conservation of target species but also of species belonging to the same ecosystem or associated with or dependent upon the target species”. Furthermore, the Code calls upon States and RFMOs to apply a precautionary approach widely to conservation, management and exploitation of living aquatic resources in order to protect them and preserve the aquatic environment, taking account of the best scientific evidence available. It also advocates the need to ensure that selective and environmentally safe fishing gear and practices should be further developed and applied, to the extent practicable, in order to maintain biodiversity and to conserve the population structure and aquatic ecosystems and protect fish quality.
1995 United Nations Fish Stocks Agreement and other instruments
In the same year of the adoption of the Code of Conduct, many of the principles contained in the Code were reflected in the United Nations Fish Stocks Agreement with a view to ensuring the long-term conservation and sustainable use of straddling fish stocks and highly migratory fish stocks in ABNJ. Apart from the sustainability of target fish stocks, the Agreement also gives due consideration, inter alia, to the protection of biodiversity in the marine environment, the impacts of fishing and other human activities on target stocks and their ecosystems, minimizing impact of abandoned gear and reduction of by-catch. The application of the precautionary approach, cooperation among States, the role RFMO/As, duties of flag States, provisions for compliance and enforcement and measures to be taken by port States, are among the key elements which laid down a ground-breaking governance framework for safeguarding the sustainability of shared fisheries resources.
A few months ago, the resumed Review Conference of the Fish Stocks Agreement met here in New York to assess the effectiveness of the Agreement in securing the conservation and management of straddling and highly migratory fish stocks by reviewing and assessing the adequacy of its provisions. Progress was recorded in many areas but delegations recognised the need to bolster implementation and several recommendations were made to achieve better fisheries management and conservation in line with the Agreement. The reduction of fishing capacity, environmental factors affecting marine ecosystems, area-based management, combatting IUU fishing, elimination of subsidies, discard and abandoned gear measures, data collection and exchange, conservation and management of sharks and deep sea species, strengthening of RFMO/As, improved flag State performance and improved mechanisms for compliance and enforcement, were among the focus areas of the outcomes of the Conference; many of these were also addressed at the 32nd Session of COFI two months later.
In support of the implementation of various aspects of the Code of Conduct and the UN Fish Stocks Agreement, and in conformity with the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, a number of other international instruments, binding and non-binding have been adopted over the years. These include:
• Four International Plans of Action within the framework of the Code – Sharks (1999), Seabirds (1999), Capacity (1999) and IUU fishing (2001)
• Voluntary Guidelines for Flag State Performance (2014)
• International Guidelines on Bycatch Management and Reduction of Discards (2011)
• International Guidelines for the Management of Deep-Sea Fisheries on the High Seas (2009)
• Voluntary guidelines for small scale fisheries (2014)
• The FAO Compliance Agreement (1993)
• The FAO Port State Measures Agreement (2014)
Regional Fisheries Bodies
International fisheries organisations have been in existence since 1902 . Their emergence over the years was not on the basis of a logically consistent and overall design, but on when States identified the need for international cooperation in the management of fisheries. The introduction of international fisheries organisations may therefore be characterised as piecemeal and as ad hoc responses to specific concerns such as the need to obtain the best scientific information on a fishery, the management and status of shared stocks, and cooperation between fishing States.
Over 50 Regional Fisheries Bodies have been established over the years with varying mandates and convention area coverage. Primary mandates include: fisheries management; scientific/research; environmental/biodiversity conservation; advisory; and aquaculture development. The convention area of many of them include EEZs and ABNJ. The number of contracting parties range from 2 to 50 and most have cooperating non-contracting parties and observers.
The most common measures applied in existing marine fisheries management plans by RFBs with a fisheries management mandate or Regional Fisheries Management Organizations and Arrangements (RFMO/As), relate to the prohibition of destructive fishing methods and practices, the protection of endangered species, measures to ensure that the level of fishing is commensurate with the state of fisheries resources, measures to allow depleted stocks to recover and the selectivity of fishing gear. Reliable stock status estimates are available for most of the stocks managed by RFMO/As. In cases were stock specific reference points are exceeded, steps are taken to limit fishing effort, carry out research, adjust fishing capacity, strengthen MCS, and, in some cases, close fisheries. Most RFMO/As have applied the precautionary approach to the management of fisheries resources within their area of competence. Historical data together with routinely collected data from logbooks, landings, and vessel and licence registers, are the most commonly used sources of information in the fisheries management process by RFMO/As.
Substantial progress has been made by RFBs in enhancing monitoring, control and surveillance, including the implementation of VMS, as well as on measures taken in relation to by-catch management and reduction of discards. Furthermore, efforts have been made by many RFBs on several fronts and in different ways to assist in the implementation of the IPOA-Capacity, IPOA-Sharks, IPOA-Seabirds and IPOA-IUU. Processes which improve the availability of information on the status and trends of the capture fisheries have also been developed by RFBs over the past decade.
The adoption of the United Nations Fish Stocks Agreement was pivotal in improving international coordination in the establishment and responsibilities of RFMO/As. Among other things, it introduces contemporary principles for the management and sustainable use of fish stocks. RFMO/As are the cooperation mechanisms at the centre of international fisheries management. The Fish Stocks Agreement stipulates that: “Coastal States and States fishing on the high seas shall, in accordance with the Convention, pursue cooperation in relation to straddling fish stocks and highly migratory fish stocks either directly or through appropriate subregional or regional fisheries management organizations or arrangements, taking into account the specific characteristics of the subregion or region, to ensure effective conservation and management of such stocks”.
The functions of RFMO/As are also provided for explicitly in the Fish Stocks Agreement and they are overarching. For instance, States are to inter alia “agree on and comply with conservation and management measures to ensure the long-term sustainability of straddling fish stocks and highly migratory fish stocks; adopt and apply any generally recommended international minimum standards for the responsible conduct of fishing operations; and obtain and evaluate scientific advice, review the status of the stocks and assess the impact of fishing on non-target and associated or dependent species”.