Process not substance dominates preparatory meeting for FSA review

Date: March 28, 2006

Last week, from March 20-24, governments met in New York for the preparatory meeting for the Fish Stocks Agreement (FSA) Review Conference to be held from May 22-26. Although Japan, Indonesia and the Philippines indicated their intention to join the FSA, and some improvements were made to the criteria to assess the FSA, process and procedure largely dominated the discussions.

Unfortunately, governments spent a large portion of the week grappling with difficult issues of rules of procedure regarding voting rights of Non-States Parties to the Agreement. It is hoped that these issues have now been resolved so that the May Review Conference can address the important issues regarding effectiveness of the agreement, as well as recommendations for future actions. It is nearly five years since the FSA entered into force and Regional Fisheries Management Organisations (RFMOs) were entrusted with the conservation and management of high seas straddling and highly migratory fish stocks. The aim of the May review is to assess the adequacy of the FSA’s provisions and if necessary propose means to strengthen the substance and methods of implementation, in order better to address any conservation and management problems. The Elements for Assessing the Adequacy and Effectiveness of the Agreement, agreed during the preliminary meeting, lists detailed criteria against which to assess the FSA. These cover the need to consider the effects of fishing on the marine environment and the extent to which parties to the agreement are cooperating to establish new RFMOs.

However, they focus more heavily on implementation than effectiveness. Some governments noted that the FSA is a ‘new’ agreement, and thus it is premature to consider revisions to the text. Although the FSA incorporates solid provisions for managing fisheries – such as the ecosystem approach that requires countries to look at the whole ecosystem when managing fish stocks and the precautionary principle (the absence of adequate scientific information shall not be used as a reason for postponing or failing to take conservation and management measures) – it nonetheless has some deficiencies and omissions. One is that the FSA’s provisions are limited to ‘straddling’ and highly migratory fish stocks – stocks that occur both inside and outside the countries’ 200-mile exclusive economic zones. The FSA does not cover so-called ‘discrete’ stocks (fish stocks found entirely in the high seas), which are therefore completely unregulated. Additional problems are that RFMOs vary widely in both their ability and willingness to properly apply the FSA. Moreover, there are areas where there are no RFMOs at all – in 75% of the high seas, deep sea fisheries are totally unregulated. Currently, unregulated deep-sea bottom-trawling continues unabated both within and outside areas managed by RFMOs, as documented by Greenpeace over the course of several expeditions to the Tasman Sea and North Atlantic. “The days of ‘fish now, negotiate later’ are behind us,” said Deep Sea Conservation Coalition member Greenpeace in its statement to the review conference preliminary meeting. The organisation referred to the exclusion of high seas stocks as a glaring gap in current oceans governance that urgently needs to be addressed by the international community. (1) According to Greenpeace, RFMOs also need to be fundamentally changed, to become Regional Ecosystem Management Organizations (REMOs) with the functional ability, capacity and mandate to address the broader ecological impacts of human activities on and under the oceans. Greenpeace and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) urged States to call for a comprehensive review of the effectiveness, role and mandate of RFMOs and other regional fisheries arrangements. NRDC noted that the Secretary General’s report contains many examples of what has been done (and not done) by RFMOs to implement key provisions of the Agreement, but a more systematic assessment of RFMO actions and their effectiveness is urgently needed. (2) Greenpeace, NRDC, and the World Conservation Union (IUCN) also reiterated the call of the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition, that the UN General Assembly must act this year to establish and implement urgent interim measures such as a moratorium on high seas bottom trawling, while concrete measures are put in place to protect deep-sea species and ecosystems. IUCN also called on the Review Conference to support the International Council for Exploration of the Sea’s (ICES) advice calling for immediate reductions in established deep-sea fisheries unless they can be shown to be sustainable. (3) With regard to new deep-sea fisheries, IUCN urged the Review Conference to support the following ICES recommendations and as a minimum to require the notification of new deep-sea fisheries to FAO and any competent RFMO. (4) “…New deep-sea fisheries or expansion of existing fisheries into new fishing areas should not be permitted unless the expansion is very cautious, and is accompanied by programmes to collect data which allow evaluation of stock status as the basis for determining sustainable exploitation levels….”

Notes: (1) Greenpeace statement to the Fish Stocks Agreement Informal Consultations of States Parties to the FSA in preparation for the May Review Conference. (2) Natural Resources Defense Council statement to the FSA preparatory meeting. (3) World Conservation Union statement to the FSA preparatory meeting. (4) Precautionary advice provided by ICES in 2005 to the NEAFC (Northeast Atlantic Fisheries Commission) and referred to in the report prepared by DOALOS and FAO in accordance with paragraph 17 of UNGA Resolution 59/25.