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New role for Mediterranean fishing commission
Management of Mediterranean fisheries is particularly complex, given the fact that some 20 countries ring its shores and share its waters.

Many of those countries have not exercised their right to establish 200 mile exclusive economic zones, as permitted by the 1982 UN Law of the Sea, claiming instead only a 12-mile strip of territorial waters off their coasts.

This means that a large portion of the Mediterranean is considered to be "high seas" -- effectively not under anyone's control. It also means that these high-seas waters are not distant from shore, as is usually the case, but lie within easy reach of the coast.

The sole multilateral mechanism by which the different countries of the Mediterranean can undertake joint action to safeguard fisheries in high-seas areas or work to harmonize management efforts in coastal waters is the FAO's General Fisheries Commission for the Mediterranean (GFCM).

Established in 1949 with the mandate of promoting the development, rational management, responsible utilization and conservation of marine resources in the Mediterranean and the Black Sea, the GFCM is an intergovernmental body that brings together 24 Contracting Parties on an annual basis to report on fisheries trends and share information, conduct joint scientific studies, discuss policy and issue management recommendations.

In recent years it has reformed its operating rules and structure and has begun to emerge as a highly proactive intergovernmental regional fisheries management body.

Membership is open to both Mediterranean coastal states and regional economic organizations as well as to FAO member states who frequently fish in Mediterranean waters. The list currently includes Albania, Algeria, Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, the European Community, Egypt, France, Greece, Israel, Italy, Japan, Lebanon, Libya, Malta, Monaco, Morocco, Romania, Slovenia, Serbia and Montenegro, Spain, Syria, Tunisia, and Turkey.

Consensus not always easy, but necessary

Given the Mediterranean's complex and crowded geography, as well as its large number of distinct underwater ecosystems, undertaking coordinated regional scientific assessments and getting 24 different Members to agree on common management measures is not always easy, says Alain Bonzon, the newly elected GFCM's Executive Secretary.

"Sitting at the same table you have poor and rich countries; a country like Italy, with 18 000 fishing boats and nearly half of all Mediterranean fisheries production to its credit, and then you have a country like Slovenia, with just 40 boats; you have countries with well established mariculture activities and other in which this industry is in stage of infancy" he explains.

Despite the challenges, says Bonzon, GFCM's members have built up the organization, especially in recent years, and it is playing an important role in fostering cooperation to establish responsible fisheries in the Mediterranean.

New regulations strengthen management

At its last regular meeting, in February 2005, the GFCM provisionally approved a sweeping array of new fishing management measures which entered into force on 5 September 2005.

The new measures include:

- a ban on towed dredges and bottom trawling at depths greater than 1 000 metres;

- a requirement that all boats larger than 15 metres be logged in a central registry, in order to combat illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing;

- tighter monitoring of "sea-ranching" of over-exploited bluefin tuna;

- a requirement that countries improve the selectivity of trawl nets targeting demersal fish (species that live near the sea bottom) in order to reduce unwanted "by-catch" of juveniles and non-target species. Specifically, countries must implement a minimize mesh-size opening of 40mm in the "cod end" section of trawl nets.

Networks for responsible fisheries

Regional Fisheries Bodies (RFBs) like the GFCM allow governments to cooperate closely on management of fisheries at the regional level.

Worldwide, there are currently some 40 RFBs in operation. Eleven of them were established by FAO and three, including the GFCM, while operating within the Organization's framework enjoy an high degree of autonomy.

Says Bonzon: "The evolution and trajectory of GFCM in recent years demonstrates that regional fisheries bodies can take on a key role in building sustainable fisheries, even in 'crowded' situations like the Mediterranean, or on the high seas where governance calls for intensive coordination and cooperation among the many stakeholders."
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Fishing near Spain. About 300 000 people in Mediterranean countries earn their living directly from full-time fishing; 900 000 others are employed in related industries.

FAO/19893/G. Bizzarri

Mediterranean countries are working closely together to improve fisheries management on the inland sea.

Credit: U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

The Mediterranean Sea has a very high degree of biodiversity, despite the heavy use it receives.

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