Report of the Meeting of the UN FAO Committee On Fisheries 2-6 March: Deep Sea Fisheries on the High Seas

23 March 2009

The meeting of the UN FAO Committee on Fisheries (COFI) took place 2-6 March, 2009 at the headquarters of the UN FAO in Rome. COFI meets every two years to discuss major international fisheries issues as well as the work of the UN FAO related to fisheries. Over 80 countries participated in the meeting; amongst the items on the agenda was the issue of the management of deep-sea fisheries on the high seas.

A set of guidelines - The UN FAO International Guidelines for the Management of Deep-sea Fisheries in the High Seas - were endorsed by COFI. These Guidelines were adopted in 2008 after two rounds of intergovernmental negotiations hosted by the UN FAO. They are designed to assist States and regional fisheries management organizations (RFMOs) in the implementation of the 2006 UN GA resolution 61/105 calling for the protection of deep-sea ecosystems from bottom fisheries on the high seas. Amongst other things, the Guidelines outline criteria by which States and RFMOs should conduct impact assessments of deep-sea fisheries, identify the types of deep-sea ecosystems that are vulnerable to bottom fisheries, and determine the extent to which bottom fisheries may impact such ecosystems using the best scientific information available.

The UN General Assembly called for the implementation of the FAO Guidelines in UN GA resolution 63/112 (paragraph 102) adopted in 2008. The DSCC is of the view that, on balance, the Guidelines should serve as minimum standards for the management of high seas bottom fisheries. Provided they are effectively implemented, in conjunction with the measures agreed in the 2006 UN GA resolution, they could provide significant protection for deep-sea ecosystems.

The Meeting of COFI also discussed progress in the implementation of UN GA resolution 61/105 regarding the management of bottom fisheries on the high seas. A number of countries expressed concern over the lack of full implementation. Amongst these was Brazil, which stated that it had called for a moratorium on high seas bottom trawl fishing and full implementation of UN GA 61/105 at the COFI meeting in 2007, and that it was disappointed at the lack of compliance with the UN GA resolution to date.

The US stated that although progress has been made, more needs to be done. The US was strongly critical of the Vulnerable Marine Ecosystem (VME) Encounter protocols agreed by some RFMOs, arguing that the threshold levels have been set so high in some cases that they may never be met. The US further stated concern about the lack of adequate impact assessments and sufficient numbers of closed areas to protect VMEs.

South Africa called for full implementation of the UN GA resolution and the FAO Guidelines, in particular impact assessments, stating that the Guidelines should be recognized as minimum standards. South Africa also called for RFMOs and flag States to publicize lists of vessels authorized to fish on the high seas.

Australia stated that more needs to be done to implement the GA resolution, in particular in relation to impact assessments. New Zealand and the European Community spoke of the challenges in implementing the UN GA resolution.

By contrast, a number of countries whose vessels are engaged in deep-sea fisheries on the high seas stated good progress was being made. These statements were echoed by interventions from representatives of various RFMOs.

Greenpeace International and the Pew Environment Group on behalf of the DSCC echoed the comments made by Brazil and the US expressing disappointment over the slow pace of the implementation of the measures agreed in UN GA resolution 61/105.

As a contribution to international discussions over deep-sea fisheries on the high seas, the UN FAO released a report "Worldwide Review of Bottom Fisheries in the High Seas" at COFI with recent information on the catch and geographic extent of high seas bottom fisheries, the countries involved in such fisheries, and a summary of the information available on the status of the species and ecosystems impacted by bottom fisheries on the high seas. An electronic copy can be found on the FAO website at http://www.fao.org/fishery/publications/technical-papers/en

In a related vein, the UN FAO also released its biannual publication "State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture 2008" (SOFIA) at COFI. In the introductory summary to SOFIA (page 8), the report states:

"The United Nations General Assembly Resolution 62/177 in 2007 deplored the fact that fish stocks in many parts of the world are overfished or subject to sparsely regulated fishing effort. The relationship between excess capacity and illegal, unregulated and unreported (IUU) fishing was also highlighted in COFI, the United Nations General Assembly and regional fora. There was only limited progress in the implementation of measures inter alia to mainstream the precautionary and ecosystem approaches to fisheries, eliminate bycatch and discards, regulate bottom-trawl fisheries, manage shark fisheries, and deal with IUU fishing in a comprehensive manner." (ftp://ftp.fao.org/docrep/fao/011/i0250e/i0250e.pdf)