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The FAO International Guidelines for the Management of Deep-sea Fisheries in the High Seas provide recommendations on governance frameworks and management of deep-sea fisheries with the aim to ensure long-term conservation and sustainable use of marine living resources in the deep sea and to prevent significant adverse impacts on vulnerable marine ecosystems (VMEs).

The guidelines also set out a framework for data collection, assessments and monitoring, control, and surveillance. All management measures taken by States or Regional Fisheries Management Organizations and Arrangements (RFMO/As) should be in compliance with other international instruments for the management of deep-sea fisheries, be based on the precautionary approach, and the ecosystem approach to fisheries.

They also call on States to cooperate through RFMO/As and/or establish and strengthen RFMO/As to this end. While RFMO/As are given a central place in the management of these fisheries, the Guidelines also offer advice on interim measures that may be taken in areas where no competent RFMO/As exist or where an RFMO/A is in the process of developing the range of policies and measures required for effective management of deep-sea fisheries.

The Guidelines specifically address major concerns about vulnerable marine ecosystems, providing:

  • an internationally agreed upon set of criteria for identifying a VME and
  • detailed suggestions for management actions to take once a marine area is designated as vulnerable.

Vulnerable Marine Ecosystem Designation Criteria

The following criteria can be used to identify a VME:

  1. Uniqueness or rarity - an area or ecosystem that is unique or that contains rare species whose loss could not be compensated for by similar areas or ecosystems. These include:
    • habitats that contain endemic species
    • habitats of rare, threatened or endangered species that occur only in discrete areas
    • nurseries or discrete feeding, breeding, or spawning areas
  2. Functional significance of the habitat - discrete areas or habitats that are necessary for the survival, function, spawning/reproduction or recovery of fish stocks, particular life history stages (e.g. nursery grounds or rearing areas), or of rare, threatened or endangered marine species.
  3. Fragility - an ecosystem that is highly susceptible to degradation by anthropogenic activities.
  4. Life-history traits of component species that make recovery difficult - ecosystems that are characterized by populations or assemblages of species with one or more of the following characteristics:
    • slow growth rates
    • late age of maturity
    • low or unpredictable recruitment
    • long-lived
  5. Structural complexity - an ecosystem that is characterized by complex physical structures created by significant concentrations of biotic and abiotic features. In these ecosystems, ecological processes are usually highly dependent on these structured systems. Further, such ecosystems often have high diversity, which is dependent on the structuring organisms.

Significant Adverse Impacts

Significant adverse impacts, as described in the guidelines, are those that compromise ecosystem integrity (i.e. ecosystem structure or function) in a manner that:

  • impairs the ability of affected populations to replace themselves,
  • degrades the long-term natural productivity of habitats, or
  • causes, on more than a temporary basis, significant loss of species richness, habitat or community types

Development and adoption of the Guidelines

These Guidelines were developed through a participatory process involving fisheries experts, fishery managers from governments, the fishing industry, academia and non-governmental and intergovernmental organizations. Building on a preparatory process that had taken place between 2006 and 2008, the final text of the Guidelines was negotiated and adopted at a Technical Consultation by representatives of FAO members in August 2008.

The Guidelines are voluntary and constitute an instrument of reference to help States and RFMO/As in formulating and implementing appropriate measures for the management of deep-sea fisheries in the high seas. Their adoption represents a major step forward in addressing both fisheries management and marine biodiversity conservation in an integrated manner and contributes to the development and strengthening of the applicable legal and institutional framework.

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