Precautionary approach to fisheries management
Diagram of the precautionary approach in fisheries
Fisheries operate in a very extensive, complex, and interconnected system of aquatic ecosystems, with important natural fluctuations and possible long-term man-induced trends.
The functioning of the ecosystems is only partially understood. The various impacts of human activities, including fishing, and their potential reversibility are not completely understood. But with a few exceptions, the information available on the fisheries themselves is incomplete and often biased. As a result, the decisions related to fisheries development planning, management and conservation are made in a context of widespread uncertainty with potentially negative and possibly irreversible consequences for the resource, the environment and the people. Consequently, a precautionary approach is required with degrees of precaution proportionate to the degree of uncertainty, risk, and reversibility of the impacts. The conventional fishery management toolbox has always contained a number of such "precautionary" elements. Unfortunately, during the last half century, these elements have been either scarcely used or poorly enforced.
When uncertainty is low, preventive measures may be established. When the cost of a potential error is low, corrective measures may suffice. When both uncertainty, risk and costs become significant, risk assessment and management become necessary. Beyond a certain level of uncertainty and risk, considered unacceptable by society, bans and moratoria, prohibiting fishing (or aquaculture) may be put in place. In such cases, because of the potential economic and social impact, decisions will usually require negotiations between stakeholders.
In order to reduce risk, the adoption and implementation of the precautionary approach is requested in a number of international instruments of importance to fisheries, inter alia:
Poor management decisions can affect an entire ecosystem
Courtesy of NOAA/the National Estuarine Research Reserve Collection
Because uncertainty affects all elements of the fishery system in varying degrees, some degree of precaution is required at all levels of the system: in development planning, management, research, technology development and transfer, legal and institutional frameworks, fish capture and processing, fisheries enhancement and aquaculture.
FAO took the lead by reviewing the implications of the precautionary approach for fisheries and imbedding the approach in the Code of Conduct and promoting its integration in the New York Fish Stock Agreement. FAO also developed, in collaboration with Sweden, technical guidelines for the precautionary approach to capture fisheries and species introduction, in support of the implementation of the Code of Conduct. The precautionary approach adopted recognizes that:
As a consequence, and recognising that the conduct of fisheries requires that decisions are still made with incomplete knowledge, the approach requires inter alia that:
The precautionary approach has now been widely-adopted by a number of fishery bodies (CCMALR, IPHC, IWC, ICES, NAFO, NASCO, ICCAT, MHLC, SEAFO), and its implementation is actively discussed in some others (APFIC, WECAF, GFCM) and advancing rapidly in ICES. The approach has also been indirectly applied by ITLOS in relation to the South Pacific Bluefin tuna case. It is also advancing rapidly in a few countries (e.g. the United States of America, Canada, Australia, South Africa). In all these cases, the precautionary approach has been largely confined to its biological elements and a more balanced application need to address social and economic risks as well.
Net being laid on the stern of a purse seiner
Courtesy of NOAA
In fisheries, the practical implementation of the precautionary approach has progressed faster than in any other sectoral management framework. In addition, the representations needed (e.g. indicators and reference points) are also used in the sustainable development reference systems (SDRS) proposed by FAO for fisheries. The combination of the two concepts and their active implementation by regional fishery bodies represent a major change in the global fisheries management landscape with potentially significant implications for the resources and the sector. The outcome of the ongoing efforts has been:
More effort is needed to foster progress. As the subject is of utmost importance it seems likely that additional resources will be assigned and used for: