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The growth in the world’s production of fish for human consumption has been maintained in the present decade almost entirely through development of aquaculture. Despite record harvests in the mid-90s – due largely to the anchoveta catch in the southeast Pacific – capture fisheries contributed only a small net increase to the supply of fish as food for people. The main hope for further increases in the supply of food fish from the marine sector lies in rebuilding stocks and reducing post-harvest losses. COFI’s attention has repeatedly returned to these objectives in recent years.

Fishing Capacity

In 1989, after twelve years of continuous increases, the world’s total marine fish catch reached a peak of almost 86.6 million tonnes. That same year, in his opening address to the 18th session of COFI, the Director-General warned that the catch of many major stocks was either approach or had exceeded already maximum sustainable yields. He said: "It becomes increasingly difficult to extract, at acceptable costs, these additional supplies . . ."

The sharp decline in total catches over the next two years – down 4.5 percent by 1991 – underlined the urgency of this message. The nature of the problem was analyzed in more detail in 1992 by a FAO report to the International Conference on Responsible Fishing in Cancun.

The report stated that the capacity of the world’s fishing fleets was greater than present catches could sustain on an economic basis. It noted an increase since 1980 of more than 40 percent in the number of decked fishing vessels reported by governments. Over a period of twenty years, it said, the relative increase in fleet size was twice the increase in catches. As a result, the world fleet operated at a loss of around $15 billion annually, with no allowance for any return on capital. Government subsidies appeared to make up much of the difference. That some sectors of the fishery remained profitable suggested that many others were in an even worse situation than the figures might indicate.

"The over-capacity in the global fleet would seem to have reached a level where fisheries development cannot have been effective since some time," the report said. "The excessive level of fishing effort now existing in the world should be the primary concern in terms of sustainability of fishing resources. Taken singly, most fishing gears are not specifically damaging; it is the sum of the gears that are the environmental issue."

This analysis was to gain force as the decade advanced. The International Conference gave it due note in the Declaration of Cancun. In recognizing the principle of sustainability, it said, States consider a most important objective to be "the application of policies and measures which result in a level of fishing effort commensurate with the sustainable utilization of fisheries resources."

The link between subsidization and capacity were brought to COFI’s attention in 1993. A further exchange on the issue occurred at the 1995 session. Several delegations noted the problems created by fleet excess capacity, over-investment and excessive manpower. They also commented on the negative effects that excess capacity in the industrial sector can have on artisanal fisheries. The Committee urged FAO to take a closer look at the effects of subsidies on competition and trade, particularly in regard to their impact on fish exports from developing countries.

Immediately following this session, the FAO Ministerial Meeting on World Fisheries, in March 1995, spoke directly to the issue of capacity. Among other recommendations, the Rome Consensus that the Meeting adopted urged governments and international organizations to take prompt action to:

A means to achieve this goal was a major topic later the same year at the Kyoto Conference, December 4-9. Declaration 11 of the Kyoto Declaration recommended that States should assess stock productivity and adjust fishing capacity to a level commensurate with long-term productivity. Similar measures should be taken regarding stocks on the high seas. The plan of action called for the identification and exchange of information on means "to reduce excess fishing capacity and implement action on programmes to reduce excess capacity, where and when appropriate, as soon as possible."

COFI endorsed the Kyoto Declaration and Plan of Action in 1997. It also urged that FAO and Member States give special consideration to the question of excess capacity and overfishing. Many delegations emphasized that frequent use of direct and indirect subsidies aggravate the problem of excess capacity. Other delegations stated that no systematic cause-and-effect relationship had been established.

The Committee welcomed a proposal for FAO technical consultation on the management of fishing capacity, which was held in July and October 1998. The Consultation approved draft [Guidelines] [Plan of Action] on fishing capacities, which COFI would review at its next session.

By-catch and Discards

The problem of by-catch – the incidental capture of non-target species – has long been part of COFI’s discussions of ways to increase the supply of food through better utilization of existing catches. In 1987, a reduction of by-catch in shrimp trawls was identified as a specific objective. By-catch discards were again singled out in a similar context in 1989. In the 1991 discussion of sustainability in the fisheries, attention was directed to the need for more selective fishing gear and methods. Some delegations urged FAO to convene an international conference to examine the problem. Subsequently, in the debate on the driftnet ban, the Committee recommended that FAO strengthen its work on gear selectivity and the behaviour of marine animals in relation to fishing gear.

The improved use of fish taken as by-catch was raised for discussion in 1993. Many delegations spoke of the need to resolve the technical, economic and logistical problems that encourage the discard of large quantities of fish at sea rather than its use as food. In 1995, the minimization of discards was reiterated as an objective. The Code of Conduct would provide measured support to this approach. Article 11 – Post Harvest Practices and Trade – recommends that States encourage the use of by-catch to the extent that this is consistent with responsible fisheries management practice.

Measures to reduce by-catch and discards also were discussed in 1997 with several countries reporting on programmes to modify fishing gear and management measures. The Committee was informed that FAO was preparing additional guidelines on the subject and plans for an expert consultation in Canada on sustainable harvesting techniques. A number of delegations described the successful outcome of campaigns to cut back on incidental captures as well as efforts to find uses for species that had previously been discarded.

A further aspect of the by-catch issue was raised at the 1997 session when several delegations expressed concern about the incidental catch of sea birds in long-line fisheries. Concern was also expressed about the management of shark fisheries. COFI suggested that FAO organize an expert consultation on these issues. Technical working groups on seabirds by-catch and shark management met in Tokyo to prepare guidelines for plans of action for both sharks and seabirds. FAO then prepared draft plans of action on both subjects. These drafts plans of action were reviewed by the FAO technical Consultations on capacity, seabirds by-catch and shark management which were held in July and October 1998. The October Consultation approved the draft plans of action.

Monitoring, Control and Surveillance

Almost from the beginning of the period under review in this study, member States of COFI have emphasized the importance of MCS and the need for assistance in this area for developing coastal States. Not only was it understood to be essential for conservation and management of fishery resources in the EEZ of these states. It was also recognized as necessary to ensure that States received proper compensation for fish taken in their zones by foreign fleets.

As noted above, MCS training was a significant part of the EEZ Programme. In 1981, COFI expressed satisfaction at the "intensified" attention being given by the Organization to MCS and at the introduction of cost-effective enforcement measures. In particular, it welcomed the FAO Expert Consultation on MCS as an excellent contribution to the gathering and dissemination of much needed information.

In 1983, COFI again asked FAO to expand and strengthen its programmes of technical assistance to developing countries in a number of aspects relating to management and development of fishery resources, including MCS. The importance of the work on the MCS component of the EEZ Programme was underlined. The subject was regarded as being of special importance to small island States faced with the problems of establishing cost-effective controls over large areas of water within their EEZs.

The Committee rarely failed to include MCS as a priority for attention in the following years. In the 1987 review of FAO fisheries programmes for the coming biennium, the Committee made particular reference to the continued need for assistance to Member Countries in their efforts to design and implement effective MCS for both foreign and domestic fishing in their EEZs.

The study of cost-effective systems for MCS was identified in 1989 as a priority for FAO in its role as a centre for policy advice and analysis. In 1991, in discussion of progress in implementing the Strategy for Fisheries Management and Development, several delegations pointed to the need of developing countries for further advice and assistance in introducing and operating efficient MCS.

Two years later, several delegations reported on progress in the management of fisheries resources in their EEZs, the establishment of cost-effective systems of MCS being noted among their achievements. Turning to high seas fishing, the Committee emphasized the importance of MCS in the conservation and management of living resources outside EEZs. Consideration was given at this time to the use of transponders and other satellite tracking devices. It was agreed that further study would be required before such measures might be possible.

Note was made in 1995 of the efforts of FAO and some Member Countries to assist developing States, particularly small island States, in the implementation of MCS systems. Some members indicated they would continue to provide such assistance both bilaterally and through regional arrangements. Despite advances achieved through such cooperation, however, many delegations spoke of a continuing need for assistance from FAO to strengthen conservation and management practices, with MCS again cited as a high priority.

Interest in new approaches to MCS, including the possible contribution of new technology, continued to grow during this period. The use of advanced satellite and tracking technology in vessel monitoring systems (VMS) was examined at a regional MCS workshop for the Indian Ocean Fisheries Commission in 1996.

Improvements in the availability and cost of VMS were noted in a report to COFI in 1997. The report also commented on new approaches to the provision of MCS services, including the use of private contractors, and the practice of assigning part of the cost to participants in the fisheries. Observing that the 1981 Expert Consultation had guided FAO work in this area for fifteen years, the report said a need had arisen for a review and, possibly, a restatement of the role of MCS in fisheries management.

The 22nd session of COFI considered the advantages – including cost-cutting – of national and regional cooperation in MCS. Several delegations expressed support for an FAO expert consultation to consider technical issues and the development of guidelines for the Code of Conduct. The Committee requested FAO to advise governments well in advance of such a consultation so that they might appoint their experts.

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