RFMOs not a panacea

Date: May 19, 2006

A new publication by the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) and TRAFFIC confirms the position of the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition (DSCC) that regional fisheries management organisations (RFMOs) are not a panacea to stop the devastation of vulnerable deep-sea marine ecosystems by bottom trawlers operating on the high seas. (1)

Countries actively opposing a United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) moratorium on high seas bottom trawling – such as Australia, Canada, Iceland, Japan and Spain – have repeatedly suggested that better management under RFMOs (the main mechanism developed by States to regulate fishing on the high seas) will solve the problem. But the WWF/TRAFFIC report says that despite efforts within some RFMOs, many fish stocks in international waters have collapsed or are on the brink of commercial extinction. “It is widely acknowledged that RFMOs have generally failed to prevent over-exploitation of straddling and highly migratory fish stocks, to rebuild overexploited stocks and to prevent degradation of the marine ecosystems in which fishing occurs.” The report says that over the last decade, the management of high seas stocks has been increasingly challenged by the expansion of bottom trawling into deep-water to target new stocks.

But these new deep-water fisheries are largely unregulated, because 70% of the high seas is not covered by any regional body with competence to manage them, and the establishment of new RFMOs cannot be done quickly enough. (2) The report states that “Where new and exploratory fisheries are not under the mandate of an RFMO, States with an interest in the fishery have been slow to develop an RFMO and States have failed to take action in the interim with respect to their own nationals to ensure the conservation of the living resources of the high seas as required under UNCLOS.” For the remaining 25% of international waters, only five RFMOs have the mandate to manage high seas deepwater species and three of these organisations have, to date, done very little to curtail the destruction. “Most RFMOs have been slow to adopt any management measures for these species and the measures adopted are often more reactionary than precautionary,” says the report. It notes that CCAMLR appears to be the only RFMO that has specific policies in place to manage new and exploratory fisheries. “In other RFMOs it appears that there are little or no constraints on the development of fisheries for new stocks or of new methods of exploiting known target species.” The report recommends that “RFMOs and, in their absence, individual States fishing on the high seas, should take immediate action to ensure that fish stocks subject to new and exploratory high seas fisheries, and in particular deep-sea fisheries, are subject to precautionary management.” “If they’re [the problems] not addressed now, you won’t have livelihoods, you won’t have fish stocks. You’re seeing it already in the choice of fish in your shops”, said Simon Cripps, director of WWF’s global marine programme. (3) According to the WWF/TRAFFIC report, RFMO decision-makers regularly ignore the advice of the scientific bodies that inform them. “Advice from scientific and stock assessment groups is increasingly clear about uncertainty and promotes the application of precaution in the face of it. However, rarely do RFMOs take decisions that reflect the precautionary advice they receive. Very few RFMOs have applied a precautionary approach to the exploitation of new and exploratory fisheries. This has resulted in ongoing and, in some cases, serial depletion of new high seas fisheries. The impact of this has been most marked in fisheries for deep-sea species.” There are also problems with members of RFMOs unilaterally setting their own quotas, ignoring or exceeding quotas. DSCC Political Advisor Matthew Gianni said, “This suggests that deep sea destruction is a matter of political choice and that we cannot rely on RFMOs to protect deep-sea biodiversity from the destructive impact of bottom trawl fishing on the high seas in the short term. We need a UNGA moratorium on high seas bottom trawl fishing until RFMOs are capable of managing deep-water fisheries effectively.” (4) “Given the perilous overall state of marine fisheries resources and the continuing threats posed to the marine environment from over-fishing and damaging fishing activity, the need for action is immediate,” said Simon Cripps. (5) The WWF/TRAFFIC report follows WWF’s call on the Northeast Atlantic Fisheries Commission in November last year to close all deep-sea fisheries in the Northeast Atlantic and support the DSCC call for moratorium on high seas bottom trawling in the region because of the damage caused by deep-sea trawling to sensitive habitats. (6) The authors of a study published in Nature in January 2006, concluded that the steep rate of decline of five deepwater species taken in commercial fishing operations in the Northwest Atlantic qualifies these species as “critically endangered” according to IUCN criteria. Two of these species are commercially valuable and are taken in large quantities in the high seas bottom trawl fisheries in the Northwest Atlantic managed by the Northwest Atlantic Fisheries Organization (NAFO).

Notes: (1) Follow the Leader: Learning from experience and best practice in regional fisheries management organizations, WWF (pdf). (2) Negotiations to establish RFMOs with a mandate to manage deep-water fisheries are under way in both the Indian and South Pacific Oceans. (3) WWF Concerned About Overfishing, Washington Post, 18 May 2006. (4) DSCC response to WWF/TRAFFIC publication, ‘Follow the Leader: Learning From Experience and Best Practice in Regional Fisheries Management Organisations,’ (pdf) (5) Governments have failed to stop overfishing – study, Reuters, 18 May 2006(6) WWF’s position on deep sea fisheries and bottom trawling (pdf)