REVIEW CONFERENCE ON HIGH SEAS FISHING TREATY:
Countries Look To Strengthen Management and Conservation of Fish Stocks
TEHRAN, 17 May 2006 (UNIC)--Fish markets around the world are bustling, menus advertise the catch of the day and the seafood industry has never been more profitable. The growing popularity of sushi has been only one manifestation of the increasing demand for fish.
There were 95 million tonnes of fish caught in 2004, mostly by a global fishing fleet of 24,000 vessels according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). The fishing industry provided jobs for 38 million people in 2002. About 38 percent of all fish is traded internationally, and in 2004, the value of this trade amounted to US$71 billion. The export value of oceanic species, primarily tuna products, was $7.3 billion in 2004, a 14-fold increase from 1976.
While much of the growth in fish production has been due to an increase in aquaculture, the world still obtains two-thirds of its fish by catching them in the oceans.
But there are fears, scientifically substantiated, that the historic “free-for-all” approach to fishing on the high seas cannot last. United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan, in a report on sustainable fisheries, characterized the present situation as having too many “Olympic” fisheries -- races by fishing vessels to catch as many fish as possible as quickly as possible under what is considered to be an “open access” regime in which few commonly accepted rules are in place or observed.
A look below the surface finds that the fishing industry’s main resource -- fish -- is in trouble. The situation is serious: according to FAO, three-quarters of the world’s fisheries have been fished to their limits or beyond and many fish stocks have become depleted. “Certain fish stocks have declined to the point where their commercial value has become insignificant”, says the Secretary-General’s report. “Other stocks have been so substantially reduced that their biological survival is seriously threatened.”
The proportion of overexploited and depleted stocks has increased from about 10 per cent in 1974 to 23 per cent in 2003, FAO reports. Of the top ten species that account for about 30 per cent of the world capture fisheries production in terms of quantity, seven are stocks considered to be fully exploited or overexploited -- anchoveta, Chilean jack mackerel, Alaska pollock, Japanese anchovy, blue whiting, capelin and Atlantic herring.
The state of specific stocks varies, according to FAO. Total catches of tuna and tuna-like species exceeded 6 million tons for the first time in 2002, accounting for 11 per cent of the total value of catches for consumption. Catches also increased for tropical species such as skipjack -- the fourth global species in 2004 -- and yellowfin tunas.
But soon-to-be-released analyses by FAO indicate that about 30 percent of the stocks of highly migratory tuna and tuna-like species, more than 50 percent of highly migratory oceanic sharks and nearly two-thirds of straddling stocks and stocks of other high seas fishery resources are overexploited or depleted.
These stocks represent only a small fraction of the world fishery resources upon which millions of people are critically dependant for food and livelihood, but they are key indicators of the state of an overwhelming part of the ocean ecosystem, which appears to be even more significantly overexploited than the 200-mile exclusive economic zone.
An international agreement on fishing on the high seas
After the adoption of the United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea in 1982, coastal states were allowed to claim an exclusive economic zone of 200 miles, within which they would have the exclusive right to regulate fisheries. But beyond the 200 mile limit, fishing by all nations continued in the “global commons” subject only to such regulations as could be agreed by all participants. At the 1992 United Nations Conference on the Environment and Development (known as the Earth Summit), countries agreed to convene a new negotiating effort for promoting implementation of the provisions of the Convention related to straddling and highly migratory fish stocks – through better mechanisms for regulating key stocks that cross the 200-mile line separating the exclusive economic zone from the high seas.
This intergovernmental conference resulted in the 1995 Agreement for the Conservation and Management of Straddling Fish Stocks and Highly Migratory Fish Stocks, a treaty that carefully balanced the sovereign interests of all countries with the need to maintain and enforce a conservation regimen, through cooperation among all the parties involved. Countries will meet from 22 to 26 May at the United Nations for a Review Conference aimed at reviewing the implementation of the 1995 Agreement and at strengthening its provisions. It is the first review of the treaty and it will assess the adequacy of the Agreement in securing the conservation and management of such stocks, and, if necessary, propose means of strengthening the Agreement’s substance and methods of implementation in order to better address current problems.
“This Agreement generated new interest and a new attitude toward the problem of the management of fisheries and the growing problems of overfishing and illegal fishing,” says David Balton (United States), who chaired the preparatory talks for the Review Conference in March. “The profile of the issue has been raised.” But despite the efforts so far, Balton says, the capacity of the world’s fishing fleet has continued to increase, contributing to overfishing and the depletion of key stocks.
“The situation is a lot worse than it was in 1995,” says Matthew Gianni, an independent advisor who works closely with major international non-governmental organizations on fisheries and ocean issues. “The Agreement was almost prescient in anticipating this situation. It is an extraordinary piece of treaty.” Gianni, who calls the 1995 Agreement “one of the most important environmental treaties,” says the pact is “robust enough, if it were properly implemented.”
The treaty has had some success, Gianni says. In the Bering Straits, where the Agreement has helped prevent further depletion of pollock fisheries, it has also been partially responsible for the sharp decline in dolphin deaths in the Pacific due to fishing. But market pressures have pushed fishing fleets to look further and further afield to find new species and stocks, Gianni says.
Since the 1995 Agreement was adopted, Balton notes, new regional fisheries organizations have been created and others have strengthened their earlier charters. These regional organizations have taken steps to implement the Agreement and have improved their capacity to monitor fishing fleets in their respective areas. They have also worked to promote better fishing techniques and the use of new gear to reduce the adverse effects of certain types of fishing on the marine environment. In addition, he says, many countries have incorporated provisions of the Agreement into their national legislation.
But the problem of illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing has persisted, Balton says, and ship owners have become very adept at evading government controls and regulations. While every state has the right to regulate a vessel flying its flag, ship owners have been able to circumvent enforcement through maneuvers that hide true ownership. “A vessel can fly the flag of one country, be owned by a corporation in another country, have a master from another, a crew from yet another country, and sell its catch in still another.” The problem is that while no one knows precisely how much illegal, unreported or unregulated fishing goes on, fishing vessels operating outside the Agreement and the rules of the regional organizations can benefit as states restrict catches to allow fisheries to recover.
“It’s the classic free rider situation,” Balton says. “The key,” he adds, “is to raise the costs of illegal fishing.” He also believes that more states should ratify the Agreement, which currently has 57 parties. “The Agreement is being ratified at a remarkable pace. The number of ratifications is pretty impressive.” And major fishing states, he notes, such as Japan, Indonesia and the Philippines, have recently announced their intention to ratify.
Balton acknowledges that there are reasons why some countries have been reluctant to join the treaty. In particular, he says, some developing countries may require capacity and resources that they now lack to comply fully with the Agreement. This Review Conference, he adds, can help promote commitments by developed countries to assist developing countries. There are also a number of sensitive issues raised by the Agreement, he says. There are some issues that concern compatibility between conservation and management measures adopted by coastal states in areas under national jurisdiction and those established in the adjacent high seas areas. Some other countries are concerned about the provisions of the Agreement which would subject their fishing vessels on the high seas to boarding and inspection by personnel of other states. “This Conference will review and assess the adequacy of the Agreement,” Balton says. “It will look at what’s going right and what’s not going so well. But I believe that the Conference will conclude that much more needs to be done.”
For further information, please visit: www.un.org/Depts/los/convention_agreements/review_conf_fish_stocks.htm, or contact: United Nations Division for Ocean Affairs and the Law of the Sea; Tel.: +1-212-963-3962; e-mail: email@example.com.