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The state of the world’s fisheries - now the subject of biennial reports from FAO - emerged as a point of global interest in 1963. At its twelfth session that year, the Conference of FAO gave it special attention, noting the "exceptional possibilities" offered by oceans and inland seas in meeting protein needs throughout the world.

At that time, world fishery production had doubled over the past decade, and future projections were highly optimistic. It was a time of abundance and unfettered opportunity, accompanied by relatively loose international coordination, even though the four Geneva Conventions on the Law of the Sea had been concluded five years earlier. The controversy of the time was whether the territorial sea should extend beyond the three mile "cannon shot" protective reach out to twelve miles.

In this era of opportunity, a need for international fisheries coordination was recognized by the Conference. Because the coordination of all efforts in international fishery work is a constitutional responsibility of FAO, the twelfth session requested the Director-General to prepare proposals to ensure that FAO would be the leading intergovernmental body in encouraging rational harvesting of food from the oceans and inland waters.

The focal proposal concerned establishing a permanent committee to deal with fisheries. Establishment of such a committee under the FAO Constitution was reviewed by an ad hoc Committee in 1965, which saw two possible solutions. One was to create a standing body of the FAO Council under Article V. This could allow for early establishment, and accommodate non-members of FAO.

Another solution was to set up a body which would have more flexibility in operation, could undertake cooperative projects and would allow full membership, under certain conditions, for important fishing nations which were non-members of FAO. This could be done under Article XIV of the FAO Constitution; by Resolution, the Conference had declared that Article XIV conventions and agreements should be concluded only when contracting parties’ obligations would go beyond those in the FAO Constitution. This could entail significant procedural delays, but there could be scope for broader-based funding.

In June 1965, the Council of FAO recommended that a Committee on Fisheries (COFI) be established as a Standing Committee of the Council under Article V of the FAO Constitution. This was endorsed by the Conference in November 1965, which also left the door open to future change by ascribing to COFI the function of considering an Article XIV international convention for presentation to member countries.

COFI eventually decided, in 1973, that its structure, status and functions should be reviewed when the outcome of the Third United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS III) is known. Although the issue returned throughout the decade as to whether it should remain an Article V body, most members saw no need for changing the status of COFI. Instead, consideration was given to ways of strengthening the Committee by concentrating on a few major tasks, such as fisheries in food policy formulation, and according priority attention to the development of the EEZs of the developing coastal countries.

The consequences of establishing the Committee as an Article V body are evident in establishment, membership, financing, functions, reporting and a secretariat.

Financing is done through the FAO in a budget approved by the Conference, but it is possible to establish funds in trust to finance COFI’s functions, subject to approval by the FAO Council.

The terms of reference of COFI as laid down in Rule XXX of the General Rules of the Organisation include the following:

  1. review the programmes of work of the Organization in the field of fisheries and their implementation;
  2. conduct periodic general reviews of fishery problems of an international character and appraise such problems and their possible solutions with a view to concerted action by nations, by FAO and by other intergovernmental bodies;
  3. similarly review specific matters relating to fisheries referred to the Committee by the Council or the Director-General, or placed by the Committee on its agenda at the request of a Member Nation in accordance with the Rules of Procedure, and make recommendations as may be appropriate;
  4. consider the desirability of preparing and submitting to Member Nations an international convention under Article XIV of the Constitution to ensure effective international cooperation and consultation on a world scale; and
  5. report to the Council or tender advice to the Director-General, as appropriate, on matters considered by the Committee.

The Rules of Procedure of the Committee on Fisheries which were adopted at its First Session (1966) and amended at the Second Session (1967) and at the Eleventh Session (1977) appear in Annex I of this paper.

Reporting procedures require the Committee to approve a report to the Council embodying its views, recommendations and decisions. Any recommendations adopted by COFI which affect the FAO programme or finances are reported to the Council with the comments of the appropriate subsidiary committees of the Council.

Reports of sessions are circulated to all FAO Member Nations and associate members, and to non-member States invited to attend the session, as well as international organizations entitled to be represented at the session.

The secretary of the Committee is appointed by the FAO Director-General and is responsible to him/her.

Composition of COFI

Upon its establishment in 1965, COFI comprised 30 FAO Member Nations, elected by the Council for a two-year period and eligible for reelection. Their selection ensured a balanced representation of nations with special interests in fisheries, different parts of the ocean and inland waters. Continuity of experience in the Committee’s subject areas was also a factor, and in 1967 four additional members were added to accommodate geographical representation.

In 1971, the Conference decided to open COFI to all interested FAO Member Nations for a trial period of four years, and this attracted some important fishing nations to join FAO or become observers to the Committee. The Committee favoured flexible membership rules, with a view to securing maximum possible participation. This was important at the time because the next four years was a pivotal time of conjecture about the future of the law of the sea. It was also a time when the whole United Nations system was giving thought to its place in the world and its role in the "new international economic order".

By Conference Resolution 24/75 of the Eighteenth Session in 1975, the Committee on Fisheries was converted into an "open" Committee of the Council. As of that date, membership is open to Member Nations of FAO which notify the Director-General in writing of their desire to become members and their intention to participate in the work of the Committee. Membership of sub-committees, subsidiary working parties and study groups established by the Committee may include FAO Member Nations and non-Member Nations which are members of the United Nations, any of its Specialized Agencies or the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Participation has, in fact reached very high levels. In 1997, 106 countries were represented (of which 82 were developing States), and 46 observers attended. A chart showing the participation in COFI sessions over the past two decades appears in Annex II, including the Chair and Vice Chair of each session.

Functions and Activities of COFI

The two main functions of COFI are to:

The Committee also reviews specific matters relating to fisheries referred to it by the FAO Council or the Director-General, or at the request of Member Nations.

To carry out its first function, COFI considers proposals for the annual, currently biennial, FAO Programme of Work and Budget for fisheries, and ensures that they are well balanced and take full account of priority areas.

COFI has, over the years, reviewed and provided guidance on a great number of international fishery problems and issues. In the early 1970’s, after a study of the role and possible actions in fisheries management for FAO and COFI, COFI agreed upon a framework for its own activities:

At that time, COFI defined its role in relation to other international bodies dealing with fisheries, especially regional fishery bodies – it would supplement, rather than supplant, the work of such bodies. In so doing, COFI concluded a number of relationship agreements or arrangements with independent regional fishery commissions; it also identified sea areas that needed to be served by regional bodies, and took steps leading to the establishment of such bodies.

It was thought that the FAO regional fishery bodies, while needing improved coordination, would still have a useful post-UNCLOS role, particularly in facilitating the settlement of disputes and bringing together countries that did not maintain diplomatic relations. COFI was seen as facilitating coordination and reviewing management measures for all regional fishery bodies.

Looming large on the global horizon at that time was the start-up of UNCLOS, and the role COFI might play in a new regime governing world fisheries. The forward thinking of the day focused on the needs of developing countries and the value of a coordinating role internationally. The following roles were identified as potentially important for the new regime:

It appeared, therefore, that COFI’s emerging niche in a climate of restructuring reflected the interests of its developing member countries, and the expectation of increased international cooperation in fisheries in a post-UNCLOS regime. At this point in time, consideration of emerging new technology, increased fleet mobility and economic factors, as some officials thought desirable, were not priority agenda items. Management measures would be a matter for Member Countries - with FAO technical advice as appropriate - and international fishery management bodies.

COFI’s future was being considered together with a restructuring of the FAO Fisheries Department and the future role of the regional fishery bodies. The proposed COFI activities noted above reflected to some extent the activities of the FAO Fisheries Department at the time, which were oriented towards information collection and dissemination, and assistance to developing countries.

The Department’s emphasis was expected to shift to more specific tasks of support to activities of the regional bodies, and for development. A strong Fisheries Department was felt necessary, both technically and numerically. Activities which were thought to need strengthening were coastal fisheries, intermediate technology, small-scale fisheries and aquaculture, with special attention to the economics of the operations and protein supply of the resource.

Major trends for the future activities of the Department were approved by COFI in 1977. These included decentralization of activities, training and the strengthening of the developmental aspects of the work of the Department.

Trends and issues in future years are described in the following section. The major issues with which COFI has dealt since 1977, and the corresponding sessions, appear in Annex III.



The leading trends which have absorbed much attention of the Committee on Fisheries (COFI) over the past two decades are grounded in three compelling, interdependent - and sometimes conflicting - realities:

The need to resolve these contradictions has required the members of COFI to find ways of giving practical meaning to the concepts of sustainable development and responsible fisheries. The challenge is to maintain a balance between the potential of the fishery to sustain people around the world and the capacity of the international fishing industry to exhaust the resource.

Wholesale legal reform was sweeping across the oceans at the start of this period, flowing from the Third United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS III). Nations were faced with managing an unseen, moving resource in global terms. Fisheries management authority needed to be created over new extended national zones of ocean space, and bilateral and international fisheries cooperation needed to be developed for the "new oceans order".

The potential of the new regime for economic growth and self-sufficiency of developing States was widely recognized before the formal adoption in 1982 of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (the Convention). In 1979, COFI approved a Programme for the Management and Development of Fisheries in Exclusive Economic Zones - the EEZ Programme - to assist and prepare these States for the new responsibilities and opportunities that the Convention would bring them. Regional fishery bodies established under the framework of FAO were to have a critical role in the execution of the programme. In time, the emphasis on development was expanded to include inland fisheries and aquaculture.

In this period, COFI also undertook a wide-ranging examination of the roles and responsibilities of governments and regional and international bodies in the management and development of fisheries. Much discussion focused on the role of FAO itself, and on its capacity to provide the expert knowledge and cooperative mechanisms required by the new era. This exhaustive process culminated in the World Conference on Fisheries Management and Development in 1984 and its endorsement of a Strategy for Fisheries Management and Development and adoption of five Programmes of Action to implement the Strategy.

While the Convention opened a new chapter in the history of the world’s fisheries, significant issues remained unresolved, or only temporarily resolved. The management and conservation of fish stocks on the high seas was but one example. COFI acknowledged such issues in its discussions prior to the 1984 World Conference. Other matters - including international trade in fish and fish products - drew its most urgent attention at immediately subsequent sessions. By the start of a new decade, however, concern about the conservation of marine resources and the sustainability of the world fishery had become a primary focus for debate.

One outcome of this adjustment was the International Conference on Responsible Fishing in Cancun, Mexico, in 1992. A month later, the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in Rio de Janeiro mandated a series of initiatives that were to occupy much of COFI’s attention at following sessions. Among signal achievements in these years was COFI’s elaboration of the Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries.

The Code is more than a comprehensive basis for sustainable fisheries in waters under national jurisdiction. It also incorporates essential features of two major steps taken by the international community to address outstanding issues relating to high seas fishing. COFI had a direct role in framing the first of these: the Agreement to Promote Compliance with International Conservation and Management Measures by Fishing Vessels on the High Seas (the "Compliance Agreement"), approved by the FAO Conference in 1993. COFI was also supportive of the process which led to the second measure, the Agreement for the Implementation of the Provisions of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea of 10 December 1982 Relating to the Conservation and Management of Straddling Fish Stocks and Highly Migratory Fish Stocks, adopted in 1995 (the United Nations Fish Stocks Agreement

Currently, the Committee faces a number of pressing issues, including: the future of the FAO regional fishery bodies, a general enhancement of monitoring, control, and surveillance for enforcement of fisheries laws, and the effects of indiscriminate fishing technology on the marine environment.

Two familiar, yet pressing challenges affect many of these issues and command solutions which COFI is instrumental in developing as a matter of priority. The critical state of many of the world’s commercially exploited fish stocks underlines the need for concerted measures to reduce excess capacity. At the same time, growing demand for fish and fish products calls for increased supply and improved utilization of the existing harvest. A detailed review of issues and trends that have characterized the past two decades of the Committee’s experience reveal some steps towards balanced action in both arenas.

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