Previous Page Table of Contents Next Page

G. 1995 FAO Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries: development considerations and implementation challenges

David J. Doulman
Fisheries Department
FAO, Rome, Italy


The concept of a code of conduct for responsible fisheries and the possibility of elaborating guidelines or a code of practice was first mooted at the Nineteenth Session of the Committee on Fisheries (COFI) in 1991 within the context of its deliberations concerning large-scale pelagic driftnet fishing.[1] In this connection, COFI recognized that FAO " ... had an important role to play in promoting international understanding about the responsible conduct of fishing operations and recommended that FAO should strengthen its work on gear selectivity and behaviour of marine animals in relation to fishing gear particularly but not exclusively those types of fishing gear which are employed in high seas fisheries. Such technical work could result in the elaboration of guidelines or a code of practice for responsible fishing which would take into account all the technical, socio-economic and environmental factors involved." It was in this manner that the concept of, and the need for, a Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries was conceived.

Responding to the call from COFI, the Government of Mexico in consultation with FAO organized the International Conference on Responsible Fishing in Cancún in May 1992.[2] The objectives of this Conference were threefold to.[3]

The Conference was well attended with representatives from more than 60 countries and the European Community. In addition, representatives from key intergovernmental organizations, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and regional fishery management organizations (RFMOs), participated. The Conference considered background papers focusing on the world’s fisheries situation; fishery resources and their environment, management and development; fish capture activities, and fish trade.

The Conference adopted the Declaration of Cancún. It noted, inter alia, the vital need for fishing to continue and to develop within a comprehensive and balanced system under the concept of "responsible fishing". The Declaration further noted that this concept encompassed the:

The Declaration urged States to implement a wide range of measures as a means of achieving sustainable fisheries. Finally, the Declaration, inter alia, called upon FAO, in consultation with relevant international organizations, to draft an International Code of Conduct for Responsible Fishing.

Significantly, the Cancún Conference provided input to the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), or Earth Summit, that was held shortly after the Cancún Conference. UNCED hastened the process within FAO to address issues relating to responsible fisheries as a result of the adoption of Agenda 21: The United Nations Programme of Action from Rio.

In 1993 the Twentieth Session of COFI noted that the FAO Council in November 1991 had already endorsed the request made in the Declaration of Cancún for FAO to elaborate, in consultation with relevant international organizations, a Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries.[4] COFI agreed that such a Code would be important for achieving sustainable fisheries development. At the same time COFI expressed satisfaction that FAO would contribute in a technical and scientific capacity to the UN Fish Stocks Conference. The Committee also agreed that the negotiation of the Compliance Agreement should be kept on a "fast track", while reiterating that flagging issues would be among the issues to be covered by the Code.[5]

The scope and the process of elaboration of the Code were major items for discussion at the 1995 Twenty-first Session of COFI. The Committee stressed the importance of the Code as an instrument to support the implementation of the 1982 Convention on the Law of the Sea (1982 Convention) as well as the fisheries outcomes of UNCED. COFI also noted that technical guidelines would be developed by FAO to support and facilitate the Code’s implementation.[6]

The Code’s elaboration was largely achieved through open-ended technical working groups. All of these working groups met at FAO Headquarters in Rome.[7] Open-ended groups were convened so as to encourage as wider participation as possible in the negotiation process. Recognizing the financial difficulty that many developing countries had in participating in the work of these groups, FAO supported the participation of some countries at meetings with a view to maintaining regional representation and balance. Moreover, in the elaboration process close relations between FAO and international NGOs were encouraged. Many of these NGOs made sustained and important technical contributions to the elaboration process. This participation and transparency was highly appreciated both by FAO Members and the international NGO community.

At the 1997 Twenty-second Session of COFI, the Code of Conduct was addressed as a substantive item. In considering this item the Committee focused, to a significant extent, on securing funding to support the implementation of the Code in developing countries and on monitoring and reporting on its implementation. COFI agreed that progress reports should be presented to the Committee at each session. These reports would address achievements and progress with implementation. Governments and civil society would be requested to provide information to FAO on progress achieved with national implementation through the use of a questionnaire. This information would then be incorporated into a consolidated report for COFI.[8]


The Code’s scope is broad and comprehensive. It prescribes principles and standards for the conservation and management of all fisheries, and to this end, the Code addresses the capture, processing and trade in fish and fishery products, fishing operations, aquaculture, fisheries research and the integration of fisheries into coastal area management. Moreover, the Code takes cognisance of the state of world fisheries and aquaculture, and proposes actions towards implementing fundamental changes within the fisheries sector to encourage sustainable utilization of fisheries and aquaculture, as envisaged by COFI when the Code was proposed and Agenda 21.

The rationale underpinning the Code is the notion that structural adjustment within the fisheries sector is required if long-term sustainability goals are to be realized. Moreover, the Code recognizes that while policy decisions concerning the changes aimed at achieving sustainability rest firmly with governments, the effective implementation of the Code requires wide stakeholder participation and cooperation (i.e. from fishermen, processors, NGOs to consumers).

The Code’s objectives are in Article 2. The objectives are to:


The Code is a voluntary instrument. In total, the Code has 12 articles and two annexes. Articles 1 to 5 cover, respectively, the nature and scope of the Code, objectives, the relationship with other international instruments, implementation, monitoring and updating, and the special requirements of developing countries.

The substantive articles of the Code are found in Articles 6 to 12. These articles are:

The Code’s two annexes provide respectively, background information on the elaboration of the Code and the text of FAO Conference Resolution 4/95 concerning the adoption of the Code.

Resolution 4/95, recalling Article 5 of the Code, urged that the special requirements of developing countries be taken into account in implementing its provisions. The resolution also requested FAO to elaborate an interregional programme for external assistance for these countries.[9] The purpose of this programme is to target the upgrading of developing countries’ capabilities so that they would be better placed to meet their obligations under the Code. Unfortunately, FAO has not met with great success in securing trust funds to support the inter-regional programme.


The Code is closely related to several other fishery instruments and it serves, in different ways, to re-enforce and support their goals and purpose.[10] To this extent the Code and these other instruments, which have similar overall goals but more limited foci, can be viewed as a package designed to confront fisheries and aquaculture problems at different levels and on different fronts. These instruments include the 1993 FAO Compliance Agreement, the 1995 UN Fish Stocks Agreement and the international plans of action (IPOAs) dealing with the:

1993 FAO Compliance Agreement

The 1993 FAO Compliance Agreement is an integral component of the Code, even though it has a different legal status to the Code.[11] Currently, 28 States and the European Community have accepted the Compliance Agreement[12]. The Agreement will enter into force on the date of receipt by the Director-General of FAO of the twenty-fifth instrument of acceptance.

The purpose of the Agreement is to permit countries to take effective action, consistent with international law, to deter the reflagging of vessels by their nationals as a means of avoiding compliance with high seas conservation and management measures. This means that countries that have accepted the Agreement are obligated to ensure that their flag vessels operating on the high seas are duly authorized to fish there. Such authorization should, as a result, enhance flag State control in high-seas fisheries and enable these fisheries to be more effectively managed.

1995 UN Fish Stocks Agreement

The Code, because of its application to all fisheries, reinforces the principles and provisions of the 1995 UN Fish Stocks Agreement with respect to the conservation and management of straddling fish stocks and highly migratory fish stocks. If effectively implemented in tandem, the Code of Conduct and the 1995 UN Fish Stocks Agreement should enhance the long-term status of these two types of stocks.

International plans of action and strategy

To date four IPOAs and one strategy have been concluded within the framework of the Code. These IPOAs and strategy support the Code’s fundamental trusts and intent while focusing on specific fisheries management issues.

The IPOAs target specific fishery conservation and management issues that have been identified by the international community as requiring urgent attention. The IPOAs for the management of fishing capacity and IUU fishing, in particular, address directly and indirectly, issues of fundamental concern such as overfishing and the need to rebuild fish stocks. The IPOAs on the conservation and management of sharks and incidental catches of seabirds in longline fisheries focus on rebuilding depleted stocks and the minimization of waste in fisheries. These issues, among others, and the need to address them in a timely and coherent manner were identified in the 1995 Rome Consensus as being critical to improving sustainability.

The Strategy for Improving Information on Status and Trends of Capture Fisheries (Strategy-STF), endorsed by the FAO Council in 2003, is a voluntary instrument that applies to all States and entities. Its overall objective is to provide a framework, strategy and plan for the improvement of knowledge and understanding of fishery status and trends as a basis for fisheries policy-making and management for the conservation and sustainable use of fishery resources within ecosystems.


In adopting the Code of Conduct in 1995 the FAO Conference made a call to all those involved in the fisheries sector, including both FAO and non-FAO Members, intergovernmental organizations and NGOs, industry and fishers to collaborate in the fulfilment and implementation of the Code’s objectives and principles.

This call by the Conference has been heeded and is gaining strength. FAO, countries, RFMOs, industry, NGOs and academia have, individually and jointly, initiated activities in line with the Code’s principles to facilitate sustainable fisheries. The results of these activities are already apparent in some cases with notable improvements in the way in which some fish stocks are utilized. However, rapid adjustment and change in the fisheries sector, as a consequence of steps taken to implement the Code, are unlikely to result, nor indeed should they be expected. Rather, progress towards implementation of the Code, and the benefits generated from policies and measures adopted by governments to facilitate sustainability, are more likely to yield phased and incremental results.

Food and Agriculture Organization

FAO has a responsibility to globally facilitate the implementation of the Code and to technically support national and regional initiatives towards this end. In this respect, FAO has a critical catalytic role to play in the implementation process but the Organization does not implement the Code per se. This point is sometimes not clearly understood, and there is a perception that FAO is responsible for the implementation of the Code.

FAO’s promotional role focuses on a number of different, but related, activities. These initiatives accord with instructions from FAO's Governing Bodies in relation to supporting the wide dissemination and implementation of the Code. The initiatives include, not in priority order:

An important feature of FAO’s work in implementing the Code of Conduct is that it provides a clear, but dynamic framework, in which to focus the Fisheries Department's programme of work and budget. Although FAO has worked for decades on projects and programmes to facilitate better fisheries management, the adoption of the Code provided an umbrella under which all the Department’s activities could be pulled together. This situation has encouraged, and indeed led to, enhanced coordination of activities in the Department.

FAO faces a number of constraints with respect to its efforts to promote the implementation of the Code. The constraints affect the pace and extent to which implementation might be facilitated. Two of the more important constraints include the rate of dissemination of the Code and a lack of awareness of it in fishing communities and FAO’s inability to secure trust funds to support the inter-regional programme.

Regional initiatives

The Code of Conduct is a global document and as such does not take account of all regional and fishery specificities. Indeed, when the Code was being negotiated FAO and its Members recognized this point. Consequently, it was acknowledged that to meet the particular fishery needs of different regions and fishery sub-sectors (e.g. inland fisheries), regional and sectoral implementation would be desirable. However, such regional and sectoral implementation should not violate the spirit and intent of the Code but rather serve to enhance and strengthen it.

FAO views regional and sectoral implementation in a positive light because it will yield benefits that will, in turn, positively impact implementation. Some of these benefits that are anticipated include:

At the regional and sectoral levels, both FAO and non-FAO regional fishery bodies (RFBs) have important roles to play in promoting the Code’s implementation. The mounting of regional workshops to disseminate information about the Code and launching activities designed to facilitate implementation are considered by FAO and its Members to be key initiatives. It is highly encouraging that non-FAO RFBs, of their own volition, are taking steps to implement parts of the Code.

Regional and sectoral implementation of the Code is hampered, in some instances, by a reluctance of RFBs to embrace the Code and by a failure of countries to implement measures that have been agreed regionally. Moreover, enhanced collaboration among RFBs is being encouraged. In view of the benefits stemming from this collaboration, FAO will continue to facilitate both formal and informal contacts among these bodies.

National activities

A fundamental concept underlying the implementation of the Code is the assumption that governments want better and responsibly managed fisheries, and that they are prepared to take difficult decisions, in the short-term, as a means of attaining longer-term sustainability gains. However, this assumption may be somewhat naive, since governments may have short planning and policy horizons. Under these circumstances, governments may seek to minimize social and economic disruption through their fishery policy interventions, even when it is recognized that such intervention is required to improve conditions in the sector. It is for this reason that technical advice concerning fisheries management and the policy decisions taken by governments concerning management often fail to intermesh.

In implementing the Code of Conduct, FAO encourages national fishery administrations to work with all stakeholders in the sector to promote the changes required towards long-term sustainability.

In large-scale fisheries, industry has a prominent role in implementing the Code. This role focuses on trying to ensure that industry complies with measures adopted. Such compliance will reduce significantly MCS costs, irrespective of whether they are paid for by government or industry itself.

In contrast, in artisanal and small-scale capture fisheries, fishing communities themselves (through community-based approaches to management) and NGOs are encouraged to promote and support the Code's implementation.

In response to COFI directives in 1997 concerning the need for FAO to monitor the implementation of the Code, FAO reported to the Committee in a substantive manner at the 1999, 2001 and 2003 Sessions of COFI. These reports consolidated and analyzed the self-assessment information provided to FAO by its Members.

In the most recent report to COFI in 2003, 105 FAO Members (57 percent of the FAO Membership) responded to the questionnaire. For this report there was a marked increase in reporting by Members that had not responded previously. In their responses Members identified constraints in implementing the Code. These constraints included:

Solutions suggested by Members in their responses to the questionnaire included:

Importantly all the reports tabled at COFI have noted that training and capacity building remain major preoccupations and priorities in most developing countries with respect to the implementation of the Code. Countries have also indicated that the lack of financial resources constrain implementation.

In considering national efforts to implement the Code, COFI has emphasized that the Code is an important basic instrument to facilitate sustainable utilization of fishery resources and hence to contribute to food security and wellbeing of people. Among other proposals, COFI requested FAO to assist further with the implementation of the Code through the provision of Code-related materials and through organizing workshops. Attention has been drawn to the large number of illiterate fishers in many countries and it has been suggested that suitable vehicles should be developed, such as audio-visual material, for informing such people of the Code and its objectives. FAO has attempted to address this issue through the preparation of a video and documents in non-technical language.


The 1995 FAO Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries seeks to facilitate change and adjustment in the fisheries sector as a means of ensuring that resources are utilized in a long-term sustainable manner. Comprehensive and integrated in nature, and intended to be implemented in a holistic manner, the Code addresses all aspects of fishery practice. While not only recognizing that the implementation of the Code must take account of the inter-relatedness of the various sub-sectors of the fisheries sector, the Code underscores the critical nutritional, economic, social, environmental and culturally important role fisheries play in artisanal and industrial fishing communities.

The effective implementation of the Code is a major challenge for all stakeholders in the sector. Implementation requires that problems are realistically assessed and national policies put in place to deal with them. In many cases these tasks involve difficult policy decisions for governments, especially where it is necessary to limit or reduce levels of fishing effort. In developing countries a lack of technical capacity hinders efforts to address issues of sustainability, and bilateral and multilateral technical assistance will need to be continued, and boosted, in order to strengthen capacity.

The implementation of the Code should not viewed in isolation. Indeed, as noted above, it serves to complement other recently concluded international instruments - notably the 1993 FAO Compliance Agreement, the 1995 UN Fish Stocks Agreement, the IPOAs and the Strategy. Indeed, from a fisheries conservation and management perspective these instruments might be best seen as a package. The successful implementation of these instruments should go a long way to addressing, if not resolving, most of the major problems that lead to unsustainable practices in the fisheries sector.

The implementation of the Code will be improved if:

FAO is in a position to focus on, and influence, some of these issues but efforts by governments and stakeholders are also required.

[1] FAO. 1991. FAO Fisheries Report No. 459. ‘Report of the Nineteenth Session of the Committee on Fisheries’. FAO. Rome. 59p.
[2] Preamble by the Mexican Secretary of Fisheries to the report of the International Conference on Responsible Fishing (mimeo).
[3] The objectives of the Conference and the scope of the papers prepared for it embraced broader fisheries issues than fishing in isolation.
[4] The title of the Code was changed from “fishing” to “fisheries” following the conclusion of the Cancún Conference so as to reflect the real purpose and intent of the proposed Code.
[5] FAO. 1993. FAO Fisheries Report No. 488. “Report of the Twentieth Session of the Committee on Fisheries”. FAO. Rome. 77p. The Compliance Agreement is not discussed in detail in this paper because it is being addressed extensively in other sessions of this Conference.
[6] FAO. 1995. FAO Fisheries Report No. 524. “Report of the Twenty-first Session of the Committee on Fisheries”. FAO. Rome. 61p.
[7] While all the working groups were held at FAO headquarters in Rome, FAO did avail itself of the opportunity to convene briefing sessions for countries and non-governmental organizations in New York at the UN Headquarters when Session of the Fish Stocks Conference were in progress.
[8] The monitoring function of the Code is an on-going FAO activity. It is achieved both through both informal and formal mechanisms, though the most important means for monitoring is the information provided to FAO by its Members and civil society.
[9] This request was met through FAO elaborating the Interregional Programme of Assistance to Developing Concerns for the Implementation of the Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries.
[10 ]Article 3 of the Code requires that it be interpreted in conformity with the 1982 Convention, and in a manner consistent with the UN Fish Stocks Agreement and in the light of the 1992 Declaration of Cancún, the 1992 Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, Chapter 17 of Agenda 21 and other relevant declarations and international instruments.
[11] See Preamble to the Agreement.
[12] As at 1 November 2004. The countries that have accepted the Agreement are: Argentina, Australia, Barbados, Benin, Canada, Chile, Cyprus, Egypt, Georgia, Ghana, Japan, Madagascar, Mauritius, Mexico, Morocco, Myanmar, Norway, Peru, Republic of Korea, St Kitts and Nevis, St Lucia, Seychelles, Sweden, Syrian Arab Republic, Tanzania, United States of America, Uruguay and the European Community.

Previous Page Top of Page Next Page