Report on the outcome of the meeting of the UN FAO Committee on Fisheries and deep-sea fisheries on the high seas

Date: March 15, 2007

The meeting (27th Session) of the UN FAO Committee on Fisheries took place 5-9 March 2007 at FAO headquarters in Rome, Italy. COFI meets every two years, bringing together senior government officials from some 100 countries with an interest in fisheries.

The agenda of the meeting this year included the issue of deep-sea fisheries on the high seas, in response to the UN General Assembly (UN GA) Resolution 61/105 on bottom fishing on the high seas adopted in December 2006.

The UN GA Resolution called on States and Regional Fisheries Management Organizations to prohibit any bottom fishing on the high seas within 1-2 years unless they can demonstrate, through impact assessments, that bottom fishing in a particular area will not cause “significant adverse impacts” to vulnerable marine ecosystems (e.g. cold-water corals). See the attached DSCC position paper on the UN GA Resolution prepared for the COFI meeting.

In addition, the UN GA Resolution called on the UN FAO to undertake a series of tasks over the next 2-3 years, including the possibility of holding a technical consultation to negotiate an ‘international plan of action’ for deep-sea fisheries.

We prepared for the FAO COFI meeting with two primary objectives in mind:

  1. To get conservation-minded States to reassert their positions on high seas bottom trawling and to emphasize the importance of effectively implementing the UN GA Resolution; and
  2. To work to ensure that the tasks and process(es) established by COFI minimize the potential to undermine the UN GA Resolution and the protection of deep-sea biodiversity on the high seas and maximize the potential to contribute to solving the problem. Given the nature of the forum, we were particularly concerned that the negotiation of an International Plan of Action would serve to reopen and weaken the agreement on high seas bottom fisheries contained in the UN GA Resolution.

In addition, in discussions with a number of governments over the past two months, it became increasingly clear that quite a few key countries (including the US, EC and New Zealand) were reinterpreting the UN GA Resolution to mean that 31 December 2008 was the deadline for flag State action in areas of the high seas where no RFMO exists. This is clearly contrary to the UN GA resolution, which set a deadline of 31 December 2007 for action in unregulated areas of the high seas (para 85), and we needed to ensure that the record was set straight in this regard.

The discussion on deep-sea fisheries took place on Wednesday 7 March under the agenda item “implementing the ecosystem approach to fisheries”. Key elements/interventions during the discussion were as follows:

  • Japan proposed that the FAO host an expert consultation on deep-sea fisheries followed by a Technical Consultation in early 2008 to provide ‘global guidelines’ to States and RFMOs on definitions of vulnerable marine ecosystems (VMEs), among other things. After behind the scenes negotiations on timing, this proposal was widely supported and agreed by COFI. However, it is clear that the Technical Consultation is not intended to negotiate an International Plan of Action but rather to develop guidelines for flag State and RFMO actions to implement the UN GA Resolution.
  • Brazil and India reaffirmed the call for a moratorium on bottom trawl fishing on the high seas. Chile signaled support for the Brazil and India interventions. This is reflected in the report of the meeting (see below)
  • A number of countries – Brazil, India, US, Norway and New Zealand – made specific reference to 31 December 2007 (not 2008) as the deadline for the implementation of the UN GA resolution in areas of the high seas where there is no RFMO (we worked hard to get this message across). This is reflected in the report of the COFI meeting (though this could/should have been asserted more strongly). The US made a particularly strong statement on the need (“must”) for States and RFMOs to implement the UN GA Resolution and to do so by the deadlines established by the UN GA.
  • New Zealand recognized that the draft recommendations of the expert consultation in August could be used by States to meet the December 2007 deadline and called on the FAO to draw on a broad range of expertise on deep-sea ecosystems in holding the consultation. Both the European Community and the US also made statements to this effect.
  • The EC asserted the urgency of implementing the UN GA Resolution and that States cannot use the FAO process to draft guidelines as an excuse for delaying or failing to implement the UN GA Resolution.
  • Canada called for transparency in the assessments States make on the impacts of bottom fisheries on VMEs and for the FAO to work with the CBD in “biodiversity mapping”.
  • Iceland appeared to be trying to backtrack on the UN GA Resolution by calling for a “case by case” approach to protecting VMEs (similar to the statement made by Iceland during the 8 December 2006 UN GA debate on Oceans and the Law of the Sea).
  • Seas at Risk, on behalf of the DSCC made a strong intervention, reaffirming the position of the DSCC for a moratorium on bottom trawl fishing on the high seas until effective regulations are in place and calling on States as a matter of urgency to effectively implement the UN GA Resolution. See the Seas at Risk statement attached.
  • IUCN and WWF also made strong statements. Greenpeace would have done so as well but unfortunately was not given the opportunity to speak on this agenda item.

In addition to the statements made during the plenary discussions, in numerous meetings we had with government delegations throughout the week, including with Japan, the European Commission and several EU Member States, Brazil, Norway, India, Australia, New Zealand, and Chile, there is clear understanding amongst countries that 1. the FAO process will not open the UN GA Resolution for renegotiation; 2. the FAO process cannot be considered a substitute for, or a reason to delay, the implementation of the UN GA Resolution by flag States and RFMOs; and 3. there is not likely to be a call for the negotiation of an International Plan of Action at the Technical Consultation in early 2008 but rather a set of technical guidelines or options for management of deep-sea fisheries and their impacts on VMEs.

In the end, COFI adopted the report of the meeting on Friday (relevant text below), which contains the following key elements:

  • An “expert consultation” on deep-sea fisheries and their impacts on vulnerable marine ecosystems will be held by August 2007;
  • A Technical Consultation will be held in early 2008 to draft guidelines for deep-sea fisheries;
  • A meeting of fishing nations engaged in bottom fishing on he high seas is likely to take place at some point in the coming year, funded by Iceland and Japan;
  • FAO will create and maintain a database of vulnerable marine ecosystems for use by States and RFMOs in conjunction with other organizations (e.g. IUCN, CBD);
  • FAO will establish a list of all vessels authorized to deep-sea fish on the high seas.

It was inevitable that a process would be established under the auspices of the UN FAO to follow-up on the UN GA Resolution. On balance, the agreement reached at COFI can be helpful in moving the deep-sea conservation agenda forward provided that the expert consultation, the Technical Consultation, and the related FAO work involve extensive consultation with, and the participation of, scientists and other UN bodies and international organizations with expertise in deep-sea biology and deep-sea ecology as well as deep-sea fisheries.

This will be key and it remains to be seen whether the guidelines that emerge from this process will in fact reflect and incorporate the best scientific information available (as called for in the UN GA Resolution) on the nature, extent and likely areas of occurrence of vulnerable marine ecosystems on the high seas, and their vulnerability to various types of bottom fisheries. That said, it is encouraging to see that the COFI reaffirmed the importance of implementing the UN GA Resolution within the timeframe established by the UN GA – hopefully this will ensure that the Technical Consultation will serve to provide real guidance to RFMOs on the effective protection of vulnerable marine ecosystems (as opposed to an opportunity for high seas fishing nations to weaken or water down the implementation of the UN GA agreement).

Finally, COFI discussed a number of other issues of relevance to the conservation and protection of deep-sea fisheries and ecosystems on the high seas. These included standards for the review and reform of the Regional Fisheries Management Organizations (RFMOs) and strengthening international efforts to combat IUU fishing through more effective port State controls. In the latter case, COFI agreed to hold two or more meetings over the course of 2007 and 2008 with a view to negotiating a new treaty for port State measures to combat IUU fishing for adoption by COFI in 2009.

Please find below the relevant text of the report on deep-sea fisheries as agreed by COFI (below is the draft text as agreed in plenary on Friday 9 March – there may be some slight edits to this text in the final report when it is published by FAO):

“77. Many members referred to UNGA Resolution A/RES/61/105, especially paragraphs 80-91, and to the need that FAO act on the requests in the Resolution. COFI agreed that FAO should convene an expert consultation, no later than August 2007, to prepare draft technical guidelines and to establish standards for the management of deep-sea fisheries in the high seas, to be finalized at a technical consultation in January or February 2008. This timing was to allow regional fisheries management organizations or arrangements (RFMO/As) and flag states to develop measures by the deadline of 31 December 2008, as required by A/RES/61/105. Some members noted that the UNGA timeframe for RFMOs under development was 31 December 2007 and that the interim measures to be developed could be informed by the expert consultation. It was agreed that the technical guidelines should include standards and criteria for identifying vulnerable marine ecosystems beyond areas under national jurisdiction and the impacts of fishing activities on such ecosystems, in order to facilitate the adoption and the implementation of conservation and management measures by RFMO/As and flag States (pursuant to paragraphs 83 and 86 of the Resolution). It was also noted that a meeting of States engaged in high seas deep-sea fisheries was referred to in paragraph 89 of the UNGA Resolution. Iceland and Japan informed the meeting that they would make available the funds for these activities. Some Members called for a moratorium on high seas deep-sea fisheries until the impacts of fishing activities on these ecosystems could be assessed.

81. COFI agreed that FAO should continue its work on biodiversity mapping as an important contribution to implementation of EAF [ecosystem approach to fisheries] in collaboration with CBD. It was also agreed that FAO should follow the request in: (i) paragraph 90 of the UNGA Resolution to create a global database on vulnerable marine ecosystems in areas beyond national jurisdiction, in cooperation with other relevant organizations such as IUCN, and (ii) paragraph 87 of the Resolution to create a list of authorized vessels engaged in high seas deep-sea fisheries.”


Matt Gianni
Political and Policy Advisor
Deep Sea Conservation Coalition