Critics push for more transparency at RFMOs that govern high seas fishing

Critics push for more transparency at RFMOs that govern high seas fishing
  • Around 17 regional fisheries management organizations (RFMOs) manage fishing in international waters, or the “high seas.”
  • Scientists and civil society members have long criticized these international bodies for failing the high seas; many of the stocks they manage are overfished, research shows.
  • Critics cite opaque decision-making as a key reason for conservation failures, and they’re making an increasingly vociferous case for RFMOs to become more transparent, citing their oversight of shared public resources.
  • RFMO representatives, while citing internal rules as well as a need for privacy to maintain open negotiations among parties, point to recent steps toward transparency.

The organization responsible for managing the catch of more than half the world’s tuna holds a key section of its annual compliance meeting in secret. For three days, a committee of the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC) assesses how well member states are following fishing rules, without any outside observers present. The WCPFC says the meeting is closed for technical reasons, not to hide bad behavior. But critics contend this raises the possibility that countries with bad-acting vessels operating under their flag may avoid public scrutiny.

Regional fisheries management organizations (RFMOs) like the WCPFC, which manage fishing in international waters, or the “high seas,” should be accountable to everyone, according to environmental advocates who are making an increasingly vociferous case for RFMOs to become more transparent. RFMOs are, after all, in charge of shared public resources. Yet the public doesn’t always get a seat at the table: many RFMOs block access to journalists and even to NGO observers during sensitive meetings.

When observers are allowed in to RFMO meetings, they’re sometimes restricted in what they can say publicly, especially in real time, as decisions are being made. RFMOs issue reports after meetings, but few explain how parties voted or what positions they took during negotiations.

“When an RFMO puts out a report, it doesn’t say, ‘Country X torpedoed this proposal,’” Ryan Orgera, global director of Accountability.Fish, a Virginia-based advocacy group, told Mongabay. “It simply says, ‘consensus was not reached.’”

The lack of detailed information makes it difficult for reformers to hold countries accountable when they fall short of their environmental commitments: There’s no public pressure because the public doesn’t know where to direct it.

Reformers such as Orgera argue that increased transparency would help RFMOs reach their stated objective: broadly, to manage and conserve fish stocks in the high seas and “straddling” stocks that migrate between the high seas and countries’ exclusive economic zones, which extend 200 nautical miles (370 kilometers) from shore.

There are about 17 RFMOs in the world, with some overlapping geographically but managing different fish stocks. Each has its own founding multilateral treaty, subject to law set forth in the United Nations Fish Stocks Agreement. Five of the best-known and commercially important RFMOs, including the WCPFC, focus on tuna and tuna-like species.

Scientists and civil society members have long criticized RFMOs for failing the high seas, and while there are signs of improved management in recent years, many experts remain concerned about poor RFMO governance. They cite opaque decision-making as a key reason for conservation failures, alongside other factors such as outsize industry influence.

Tuna school. Image by NOAA Fisheries West Coast via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

Opaque decision-making

The North-East Atlantic Fisheries Commission (NEAFC), an RFMO established in 1980, manages the fisheries in much of the high seas near Europe. The NEAFC’s member states are mostly rich European countries, but the area’s marine life hasn’t been richly rewarded by their management: the three main fish stocks — Atlantic mackerel (Scomber scombrus), Atlanto-Scandian herring (Clupea harengus) and blue whiting (Micromesistius poutassou) — have been substantially overfished for many years.

It’s not easy for conservationists or journalists to get into the room when NEAFC-related management decisions are made. While NGO observers with good standing can attend some larger meetings, many key decisions are made in “Coastal States” meetings that are almost entirely closed to observers and for which there’s no public record of discussions. These meetings include nearly the same member countries as the NEAFC, yet the meetings aren’t officially part of the NEAFC, and critics say they effectively constitute an unaccountable shadow decision-making process.

Orgera said there may be a connection between the lack of transparency at the NEAFC — above all, in the Coastal States negotiations — and its lack of success in reducing fishing pressure.

“Sustainability cannot exist without transparency and accountability,” he said, calling the NEAFC “secretive.”

Darius Campbell, the NEAFC secretary, disputed the characterization. He said the NEAFC, while being an older RFMO that isn’t as strong on transparency as some newer RFMOs, continues to improve on this front. In 2023, it opened a key working group to observers, Campbell noted, and this year it will begin publishing more detailed information on objections to proposals. He also said the failure to agree on sustainable stock allocations could be attributed to the Coastal States negotiations, as what those states do in their own waters affects the three main fish stocks in the NEAFC high seas area because the stocks straddle the boundaries. He said the Coastal States were not a shadow body but a series of separate negotiations.

Each RFMO has its own features, but on the whole RFMOs operate with an unusual degree of opacity compared to other international organizations, Grantly Galland, project director for international fisheries at the Pew Charitable Trusts, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, told Mongabay. At the U.N. climate conference, countries that block progress are called out by advocates each day, Galland said. “We could never do something like that for the RFMOs,” he said.

However, some experts outline an upside to current practices: Closing meetings to observers allows for more honest, efficient negotiations and more “internal transparency,” Johanne Fischer, a former executive secretary of two RFMOs and author of a 2022 paper on RFMO transparency in the journal Marine Policy, told Mongabay. Without observers, delegates can say plainly that, for example, they can’t go home without a certain amount of quota, Fischer said. Opening up sensitive meetings would make participants “guarded and strategic,” she said, and might push meaningful discussions into the corridor, between representatives of two or three countries, leaving other parties out.

Still, reformers say that public knowledge, which can lead to pressure campaigns, is key to change because RFMOs don’t have strong accountability mechanisms built in. Orgera of Accountability.Fish called RFMOs “nearly toothless” as they don’t have any strong way to punish rule-breaking countries.

There are about 17 RFMOs in the world, with some overlapping geographically but managing different fish stocks. Map shows the five best-known and commercially important RFMOs, which focus on tuna and tuna-like species. Image courtesy of the Pew Charitable Trusts.
There are about 17 RFMOs in the world, with some overlapping geographically but managing different fish stocks. Map shows the five best-known and commercially important RFMOs, which focus on tuna and tuna-like species. Image courtesy of the Pew Charitable Trusts.

In August, Accountability.Fish launched a tracker meant to act like the journalist in the room at RFMO meetings. It explains which parties are blocking or watering down reforms, using info from NGO observers and other sources.

“We publish it and it becomes sort of the only document that is giving an actual accounting of what’s occurring in the room and which countries are standing in the way of progress,” he said.

Scientists want more info, too

Opaque decision-making at many RFMOs hinders work not just for environmental advocates but also for researchers.

Melissa Cronin, a postdoctoral fellow at Duke University’s Coasts and Commons Co-Laboratory, said she had to abandon one area of research on threatened sharks because of a lack of RFMO voting records.

“Without this information, it’s really hard to figure out what’s going on regarding international fisheries policy — which countries support which conservation policies, and which oppose conservation policies,” she told Mongabay by email.

In addition to pushing for decision-making transparency, some researchers are also calling for more data transparency. RFMOs do place many reports online, but they often put so much information online that it’s hard even for experts to make sense of it all.

“Data dumping is not transparency,” Gabrielle Carmine, a Ph.D. candidate at Duke’s Marine Geospatial Ecology Lab, told Mongabay. She said it’s important to distinguish between information and data — amid the glut of information, the most important data is often missing, she said, citing beneficial ownership data in vessel registries as an example.

Data reporting obligations need to be tightened to make data more “consistent in its completeness and level of granularity,” Kamal Azmi, a research fellow at the Australian National Centre for Ocean Resources & Security (ANCORS), told Mongabay. That way, scientists will have comparable sets of data to work with, he said.

U.S. Coast Guard members board a vessel as part of an operation to counter illegal fishing in international waters of the eastern Pacific Ocean on August 2, 2022. Fishing in the area is managed by the South Pacific Regional Fisheries Management Organization (SPRFMO), an international body. Image by Coast Guard News via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 Deed)
U.S. Coast Guard members board a vessel as part of an operation to counter illegal fishing in international waters of the eastern Pacific Ocean on August 2, 2022. Fishing in the area is managed by the South Pacific Regional Fisheries Management Organization (SPRFMO), an international body. Image by Coast Guard News via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 Deed).

Broader issues

RFMOs have a scratchy record of conserving fish stocks and the ecosystems they rely on. A well-known 2010 paper in the journal Marine Policy by University of British Columbia fisheries scientists found that two-thirds of high seas fish stocks under management by 14 RFMOs were depleted or being overfished.

“Historically they [RFMOs] have failed to prevent overfishing and maintain healthy fish stocks,” a Pew primer on RFMOs states. “[D]ecisions are often highly political, and some RFMOs have consistently adopted catch levels much higher than scientists considered sustainable,” it adds.

There has been progress: Pew’s most recent evaluation of RFMOs found improved performance on developing harvest strategies and adopting ecosystem-based management that takes the general health of the ocean into account. A U.N. report also noted improved monitoring to prevent illegal fishing. Moreover, most RFMOs now commission independent performance reviews every few years and publish the results on their websites.

However, experts generally agree there’s much room for improvement, and the problems with RFMOs go beyond a lack of transparency.

Many RFMOs operate on a consensus model that allows one dissenting party to block or opt out of decisions. This model is “infamously failing,” three researchers, including Carmine, wrote in an op-ed in the journal Science earlier this year. The consensus model means that “one nation, no matter how small or undemocratic, can derail anything,” the Accountability.Fish website states. Such “rogue actors,” as some critics have taken to calling them, are hard to hold accountable because they’re often so hard to identify.

A cartoon published Dec. 9, 2023, in the Cook Island News skewers the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC) for not allowing journalists into its annual general meeting.
A cartoon published Dec. 9, 2023, in the Cook Island News skewers the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC) for not allowing journalists into its annual general meeting, held in the Cook Islands that month. WCPFC told Mongabay that there were no media requests for access after the opening ceremony. However, Rashneel Kumar, editor of the Cook Island News, told Mongabay his reporting team was barred from entering. “We attended the opening ceremony and were told that the rest of the meeting was held behind closed doors, and the media was not allowed to attend,” Kumar said. “I had to get hold of people outside the meeting venue for interviews.” Image courtesy of KATA/Cook Island News.

Jennifer Telesca, an environmental governance researcher at Radboud University in the Netherlands, said that despite their ostensible conservation aims, RFMOs’ main function is to serve the economic interests of member states. Her book, Red Gold: The Managed Extinction of the Giant Bluefin Tuna, provides a critical look at the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT), the RFMO with the most member countries, 52. Telesca said RFMOs are run on the assumptions that marine animals are commodities and that “the ocean is for people” — and not just any people, but the privileged.

“[T]he people are global elites,” she told Mongabay, referring to those who end up eating the tuna. “This isn’t about ensuring fish for the world’s poor.

Even scientists and observers who may be less fundamentally critical of RFMOs say the fishing industry has a profound influence over RFMO decision-making.

“Members of RFMOs tend to be very cautious,” Azmi, of ANCORS, said. “They’re not going to agree to something unless they’ve got the full support of their industry.”

And whereas NGO representatives usually attend RFMO meetings as observers, industry representatives normally attend as members of national delegations, which allows them more influence. At the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission (IOTC), another RFMO, industry representatives accounted for more than half of the EU’s delegation in recent years, according to a report by BLOOM Association, a French nonprofit. Spanish and French company reps have also “colonized” other delegations, such as that of the Seychelles, according to BLOOM.

“[W]e need to drastically reduce the influence of lobbyists,” Frédéric Le Manach, BLOOM’s scientific director, told Mongabay, citing the IOTC as an example. “[The IOTC is] a failure on overfishing, it’s a failure on FAD control, it’s a failure on allocation of quotas. Why? Because the main industrial fishers in the area, i.e. the EU ones, are blocking everything, and they are everywhere.” FADs, or fish-aggregating devices, are floating structures deployed to attract tuna and that cause overfishing of juveniles and marine pollution.

School of fish around a fish aggregation device or FAD in the Western Pacific.
Fish school around a fish-aggregating device (FAD) in the western Pacific Ocean. Image © Paul Hilton / Greenpeace.

Paul de Bruyn, the IOTC’s executive secretary, told Mongabay by email that it was not part of the secretariat’s mandate to respond to such criticism. He said the IOTC publishes parties’ objections to new rules, and that anyone, including journalists, can attend IOTC working group meetings, while accredited observers can attend technical and commission meetings.

Rhea Moss-Christian, the WCPFC’s executive director, told Mongabay in an emailed statement that a section of the WCPFC compliance meeting is closed for technical reasons, including rules on data, not in an attempt to hide bad behavior. She said the WCPFC publishes a compliance report based on the meeting’s findings. She also said the process for updating the blacklist of vessels that flout WCPFC rules, another key part of the annual compliance meeting, is open to observers.

Despite trenchant criticism of RFMOs, even modest reform hasn’t been easy to achieve. At a U.N. meeting in May, NGO efforts to amend sections of the Fish Stocks Agreement related to harvest strategies and ecosystem-based management were unsuccessful, and Russia blocked several nations’ efforts to incorporate recent major international commitments on climate change, biodiversity protection and high seas protection, according to Galland of Pew.

The push for more transparency may be an achievable first step. Accountability.Fish, which is funded by a grant managed by Pew but operates independently, is calling for RFMOs to adopt 12 principles that would increase access to meetings for citizens, scientists and labor groups.

Everyone, even farmers in Burkina Faso, a landlocked country in West Africa, has a right to know how RFMOs are operating, Orgera told Mongabay. Many experts who spoke to Mongabay shared the same sentiment, including Cronin, the Duke postdoc.

“We all have a stake in these decisions, because we all rely on the ocean in one way or another for food, for clean air, for climate change mitigation,” she said. “We should at least be able to understand how these massive decisions are made.”

Banner image: A net bulging with tuna and bycatch on a purse seiner in the eastern Pacific Ocean. Image © Alex Hofford / Greenpeace.


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Citations:

Fischer, J. (2022). How transparent are RFMOs? Achievements and challenges. Marine Policy, 136, 104106. doi:10.1016/j.marpol.2020.104106

Cullis-Suzuki, S., & Pauly, D. (2010). Failing the high seas: A global evaluation of regional fisheries management organizations. Marine Policy, 34(5), 1036-1042. doi:10.1016/j.marpol.2010.03.002

Jacquet, J., Carmine, G., & Jackson, J. (2023). UN multilateral agreement offers an opportunity to protect high seas biodiversity. Science Advances, 9(25). doi:10.1126/sciadv.adj1435

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