Since 1945 some 30 subregional or regional fisheries management organizations or arrangements (RFMOs) have been established: Chapter 17 of Agenda 21, the United Nations Programme of Action from Rio, the 1995 UN Fish Stocks Agreement and the 1995 FAO Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries highlight the role of RFMOs in implementing management measures designed to secure long-term sustainable and responsible outcomes.
Although many RFMOs focus heavily on fisheries management activities, some of them are underperforming and not achieving the goals for which they were established. Why is this happening?
Problems facing RFMOs
International fora such as the FAO Committee on Fisheries and academic journals discuss the role and activities of RFMOs. Discussion highlights organizational efficiency and the nature and extent of their work, but there is little frank discussion about their performance. At an FAO meeting in 2001 representatives of RFMOs supported, in principle, the need to develop performance indicators and related guidelines, while recognizing that some organizations already used indicators of sustainable development to assess their performance.
While the reasons for failure may vary in importance and priority among RFMOs, some issues seem to have a general character. The inadequacy of science in providing usable management advice is often cited by managers, as a reason, indicating that the advice received is often not practical enough. In any case, while scientific weaknesses have been observed, leading to ineffective action, the most widespread problem is inaction. Some RFMOs are constrained by a failure of members to address difficult issues such as the management of fleet capacity because of the consequences that reduction may have for their fishers or for their national share (allocation issue).
There is also a genuine lack of cooperation among members, particularly in relation to shared stocks. This reluctance to cooperate effectively hinders the work of RFMOs and undermines their effectiveness (e.g. reluctance by members to adopt standard methodologies for scientific assessments, to share information regarding the activity of foreign fleets or to comply with port States responsibility). Common standards and cooperation on these basic issues are fundamental to long-term sustainable management. Charges that data are voluntarily biased and assessments influenced by politics are being heard in some RFMOs. In such situations a lack of trust among members stifles cooperation. In the developing world, a lack of technical and financial capacity acts a break on cooperation.
Recent achievements of RFMOs
Despite the shortcomings in regional fisheries governance, some RFMOs have focused on innovative regional cooperation as a means of enhancing management. Some innovations have been adopted to address illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing. Such fishing, which occurs by both contracting and non-contracting parties to RFMOs and not only by flag vessels from open registries, undermines efforts to manage fisheries in a responsible manner. The promotion of port and trade measures to deter the laundering of IUU-caught fish is being implemented by an increasing number of RFMOs. The adoption of such measures is revolutionary. Until recently they would not have been considered appropriate for combating fisheries management problems. This situation indicates a change in mood on the part of the international community in its desire to curb IUU fishing and related practices.
A burning issue for RFMOs is their capacity and willingness to accommodate new entrants in a fair and consistent manner. Failure to address membership, capacity, allocation, and equity issues together could endanger the future work of RFMOs and lead to increased IUU fishing. The lack of agreed criteria had caused a fundamental split in ICCAT in recent years, which had hampered the organization's ability to deal productively with other problems. In late 2001, however, ICCAT reached an innovative solution on how to deal with allocations, including for new entrants.
The future of RFMOs
RFMOs are needed to facilitate and reinforce regional cooperation. A major challenge for them over the next decade will be to implement parts of Agenda 21, the 1995 UN Fish Stocks Agreement, and the 1995 FAO Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries. But until and unless RFMO members are prepared to cooperate more closely and are prepared to take difficult decisions that could have adverse short-term social and economic impacts vis-à-vis longer-term sustainability gains, unlimited amounts of scientific research, funding and enforcement will not improve the effectiveness of these organizations.
If the work of RFMOs is to be strengthened in a real and effective manner, some basic issues concerning performance must be addressed. States must also commit themselves to initiatives that, in the short run, might disadvantage their fishers finding the necessary mitigation measures. Difficult choices must be made to support sustainable solutions. The greater involvement of stakeholders, including industry, in the work of RFMOs could enhance their performance and effectiveness, especially if they are really convinced of the need to implement tough and difficult decisions.