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The role of regional fishery bodies

The history of multilateral agreements to deal with the development and management of living resources through permanent bodies, or similar mechanisms, is not old. With the exception of the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES), established in 1902, such agreements were concluded after the Second World War. In 1946, seventeen countries signed the international Convention for the Regulation of Whaling. At its first and third sessions in 1946 and 1947, the FAO Conference, with vision and realism for the potential role of living aquatic resources could play in international cooperation and in socio-economic development at global and regional levels, recommended that the Organization took action to initiate the formulation of regional fishery bodies and listed the priority sea areas that should be given preference which included the Indian Ocean and Southwestern Pacific.

The Indo-Pacific Fisheries Council, now Asia-Pacific Fishery Commission (APFIC), was the first regional fishery body set up in 1948 under the FAO Constitution (Menasveta, 1998). Thereafter, several other regional bodies or arrangements were established within and outside the framework of FAO. Currently, there are about 30 regional fishery bodies operating worldwide. Nine of them were established under the FAO Constitution (FAO bodies)1 and 24 were established under international agreement between three or more contracting parties (non-FAO bodies)2.

FAO fishery bodies are:


Asia-Pacific Fishery Commission (1948-)


Fishery Committee for the Eastern Central Atlantic (1967-)


Committee for Inland Fisheries of Africa (1971-)


Commission for Inland Fisheries of Latin America (1976-)


European Inland Fisheries Advisory Commission (1957-)


General Fisheries Commission for the Mediterranean (1949-)


Indian Ocean Fishery Commission (1967-1999)


Indian Ocean Tuna Commission (1993-)


Western Central Atlantic Fishery Commission (1973-)

Non-FAO fishery bodies in Asia and the Pacific are:


South Pacific Forum Fisheries Agency


International Centre for Living Aquatic Resource Management


Intergovernmental Organization for Marketing Information and Technical Advisory Services for Fishery Products in the Asia and Pacific Region


Mekong River Commission


Network of Aquaculture Centres in Asia-Pacific


North Pacific Anadromous Fish Commission


North Pacific Marine Science Organization


Southeast Asian Fisheries Development Center


The Secretariat of the Pacific Community

The outcome of recent global conferences, such as UNCLOS, UNCED, Kyoto Conference and World Food Summit, and the deliberations of the FAO Committee on Fisheries have impacts on fishery governance and the perception of the international community concerning world fishery resources and, in particular, their sustainable management and utilization. These global conferences have also contributed to the elaboration and adoption by some member countries of several international instruments, including the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, the 1995 UN Agreement on the Conservation and Management of Straddling Fish Stocks and Highly Migratory Fish Stocks, the 1993 FAO Compliance Agreement and the 1995 FAO Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries.

These instruments call on regional fishery bodies and arrangements to undertake a number of activities. Under the Law of the Sea Convention, for example, regional bodies are expected to promote agreement between States for the conservation and development of shared stocks and the conservation of straddling stocks, as well as the conservation and optimum utilization of highly migratory stocks. Under the UN fish stocks agreement, regional bodies and arrangements are expected to assist or facilitate their members to perform a range of obligations such as agreement on conservation and management measures, evaluation of scientific advice they obtain, review of the status of stocks, agreement on standards for collection, verification and exchange of data, compilation and dissemination of statistical data, establishment of appropriate mechanism for effective MCS, promotion of peaceful settlement of disputes, etc. The Compliance Agreement also envisages that regional bodies facilitate the exchange among its Parties of information relating to the implementation of the Agreement. These instruments and the Code of Conduct emphasized the crucial role that regional fishery bodies and civil organizations are expected to play in good global fishery governance.

Although efforts to deal with stock management have intensified as fish production has increased dramatically due largely to advances in fish harvesting technology, these management efforts have yielded poor results. In addition, with the advancement of national development, there has been rapid increase in urban development in coastal areas which in turn led to the increased pressure in coastal zones. The global reviews by FAO (1999a) of the current state of fish stocks indicate that, in most cases, present systems of fishery governance have failed to ensure resource conservation and economic efficiency. The recent report on ocean governance succinctly summarizes some of the pertinent fishery issues:

“... Overfishing is notoriously resistant to traditional resource management approaches... Uncertainties abound, so that traditional ‘rational’ management approaches based on the underlying assumption of predictability become increasingly unworkable. Because traditional approaches also tend to ignore distributional fairness and to limit participation in the decision-making process, they have limited credibility and lack social support for their implementation among the increasingly broad range of stakeholders involved. ... Fishing is often treated as right without attendant responsibilities. ... Rule compliance is generally low and pressure within fishery management lead to decisions that err on the side of risk rather than caution.”3

To promote regional fishery governance for better performance, the Code of Conduct urges regional fishery bodies or arrangements to participate in the implementation of all aspects of the Code. A particular call is made to States and regional bodies to collaborate in activities relating to fisheries management and fishing operations that will promote good governance such as:

Despite past difficulties that regional fishery organizations or arrangements have experienced in their efforts to secure more effective fisheries management, they have the potential to be vehicles for sound fishery governance provided that they have realistic mandates, the required political backing, and the financial and human capacity to function as they are intended. However, to ensure efficiency, and to promote the type of regional governance that is called for in the international instruments discussed above, a number of key considerations need to be addressed and fulfilled. In particular, individual and collective action by States is necessary to:

Moreover, efforts should also be made to influence the activities of non-members of regional organizations or arrangements. This can be done through international scrutiny and publicity, and if necessary, by bringing moral and political pressure to bear, when the activities of non-members Parties undermine the work of regional bodies or arrangements.

Recognizing the important roles which regional fishery bodies were increasingly being asked to play in the implementation of international instruments regarding the sustainable management and governance of fish stocks, FAO convened the meeting of FAO and non-FAO regional bodies or arrangements in February 1999 to exchange views and sharing of experiences on common problems and responsibilities. The meeting concluded, inter alia, that there was a clear difference between the issues and problems faced by some regional bodies consisting mainly of developed countries and those of developing countries, particularly in respect of levels of financial support and the complex issues involved in small-scale, multispecies fisheries. In addition, for the latter, the member countries in general has not accepted ownership of and responsibility for the FAO bodies. Therefore, their level of commitment to them was comparatively low and there had been little willingness to delegate to these bodies any mandate for regional management of fisheries. The functions of the FAO bodies were therefore largely limited to advisory roles and providing opportunities for discussion and training (FAO, 1999b).

In Asia-Pacific, there are a number of regional fishery bodies that play active role in fisheries and aquaculture development in the region. These bodies include SEAFDEC, MRC, NACA as well as INFOFISH and ICLARM in Southeast Asia, and FFA and SPC in South Pacific. However, the only regional fishery body of FAO is APFIC. During its 50 years of operation, APFIC has been instrumental in rational fisheries development and the conservation of fishery resources in the region. The vision of the Commission towards the next millenium is quite clear, i.e., to ensure the sustainable contribution of fisheries to the food security and economies of its member countries. In order to fulfil this vision, the mission of APFIC is to help accelerate self-reliance of its members in the conservation and sustainable use of fishery resources in the region. However, there are a number of constraints that limit current activities of the Commission, including the lack of funding support, lack of commitment of and active participation of some members in the work of APFIC (Menasveta, 1998). In order to play its role as expected effectively, APFIC must be strengthened and developed into a regional fisheries management body in the long term. The Commission has recognized, at its Twenty-sixth Session (Beijing, 24-30 September 1998) that, in moving into the twenty-first country, APFIC should have a new mandate and enhanced responsibilities to attain the above-mentioned objective. It therefore established an Ad hoc Legal and Financial Working Group to develop mechanism in support to its new functions. If APFIC cannot perform its role in promoting regional fishery governance, then a new regional body has to be created in due course.

1 FAO fishery bodies

2 Non-FAO fishery bodies in Asia and the Pacific

3 Costanza, R., et al. 1998. Principles for sustainable governance of the oceans. Science, Vol. 281, pp. 198-199 (as quoted by FAO, 1999b, p. 45).

4 There is a perception that until countries are contributing financially in a direct manner to regional bodies or arrangements, they will not take a continuing and active role in their work. It has been noted that where there is the case there is a high level of interest and participation by members in the work of organizations or arrangements (FAO, 1999b).

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