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Any analysis of the state of fisheries and their resources needs to be undertaken in its broader aquatic context. In that respect, most aquatic environments indicate a lack of stewardship, illustrated by growing degradation, loss of habitat, lack of coherence in aquatic science policy, inadequate management-oriented research, poor or inexistent long-term monitoring, lack of strategic, integrated planning of conflicting uses, etc. The relative failure of conventional fisheries management has been abundantly described (Garcia, 1992; Garcia, 1996a; Garcia and Grainger, 1997; Sutinen and Soboil, 2003, and many others).

The realization of the need to exert some form of control over multiple uses of a sea area emerged during the late twentieth century as a result of concerns over the health of the oceans, the regulation of human activities, the allocation of space, resources, rights and responsibilities, and the growing occurrence of related conflicts. In the process, the division of resources among nations (through the establishment of sovereign rights) seems to have been given priority over the issue of their conservation for future generations. The process was accelerated by the technological boom in the 1950s, which increased dramatically the world fishing power and the risk of contamination from naval accidents. This is illustrated by the oil spills of the TORREY CANYON (1967) and AMOCO CADIZ (1978), as well as by fish stocks collapses such as the Indian sardinella (in the 1940s), Japanese sardine (in the 1940s and 1950s), South African pilchard (1965-66), Atlantic herring (1968-69), Greenland cod (1968), Georges Bank haddock (1968), Namibian pilchard (1970-71), Peruvian anchoveta (1972-73), Gulf of Guinea sardinella (1973-74) and Canadian Atlantic cod (in the 1990s).

The effect has been an increasing societal concern about the sustainability of fisheries and their environment during the last five decades. In order to improve the sector's image and sustainability, fisheries governance is required to become more effective and risk adverse, taking account of the ecosystem's limits as well as being responsive to environmental changes and conservative of ecosystem components. Fisheries development planning will need to be more integrated with the planning and management of the other sectors sharing aquatic space and resources. Institutions in charge respectively of fisheries and environmental management need to collaborate more effectively and improve substantially their effectiveness, better sustained by increased national commitments.

Implicitly or explicitly, most of the recently adopted instruments of relevance to fisheries call for an approach to fisheries giving more attention to the ecosystem. When considering the implications of such an approach, fishing and coastal nations will need to ensure that the content of the approach is in line with already agreed instruments (whether binding or not), complies with the sovereign rights of coastal States and does not imply obligations or duties beyond those already committed to. Most of the principles and conceptual elements of an Ecosystem Approach to Fisheries (EAF) are already contained in a number of binding or voluntary arrangements, agreements, conventions (global or regional), codes, etc., of direct or indirect relevance to fisheries. These instruments span from the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (hereafter called the 1982 Convention) to the 1995 FAO Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries (hereafter called the Code) and its International Plans of Action (IPOAs), and from the 1971 Ramsar Convention to the 1992 Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), including the 1995 Jakarta Mandate on Marine and Coastal Biological Diversity.

More recently, the FAO-Iceland Conference on Responsible Fisheries in the Marine Ecosystem, Reykjavik, October 2001 (Sinclair et al., 2003) brought the issue to the forefront of fisheries requesting FAO to develop guidelines. Finally, the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD, Johannesburg, September 2002) "encourage(d) the application by 2010 of the ecosystem approach, noting the Reykjavik Declaration on Responsible Fisheries in the Marine Ecosystem and Decision V/6 of the Convention on Biological Diversity"[1].

The Code offers a synthesis of the requirements of all the above instruments and provides the conceptual basis and institutional requirement for, inter alia, ecosystem and habitat protection; accounting for environmental factors and natural variability; reducing impacts of fishing and other activities; biodiversity conservation; multispecies management; protection of endangered species; accounting for relations between populations; reducing land-based impacts and pollution; integration in coastal area management; elimination of ghost-fishing; reduction of waste and discards; precautionary approach; delimitation of ecosystem boundaries and jurisdictions, as well as adapted institutions and governance.

Implementation remains the "acid test" of any approach to management. EAF implementation faces, and needs to resolve, a number of difficulties, many of which are already hampering the effectiveness of more conventional fisheries management. These difficulties relate to, inter alia: lack of information, lack of scientific assessment, non-matching of ecosystem and jurisdiction boundaries, appreciation of the role of protected areas, unclear or conflicting objectives, lack of consensus about ecolabelling, insufficient collaboration between institutions in charge of fisheries and environmental management at national or regional levels, lack of integration of fisheries in coastal areas management, need for more transparency and participation, lack of capacity for decentralization, redefinition (and strengthening) of the role of science, relations between trade and the environment (and the role of the World Trade Organization), and, last but not least, the potentially large socio-economic and political costs of transition.

This document reviews briefly: the evolution of terminology and underlying paradigms; some selected ecosystem characteristics; the impact of fisheries and of other activities with which fisheries compete; the institutional foundations of the approach with the particular role played by the Code; the conceptual objectives and principles of relevance for EAF; selected operational objectives and related measures and actions, and selected implementation issues. In conclusion, we discuss the likely evolution of the approach and the potential "fusion" or "collision" between the paradigms and overlapping groups of fisheries and ecosystem management stakeholders.


The authors wish to express their grateful thanks to the many colleagues who made comments and gave suggestions on the early draft of this document during and after the FAO Expert Consultation on Ecosystem-based Fisheries Management, Reykjavik, Iceland, 16-19 September 2002, and particularly to Drs K.L. Cochrane and D. Staples.

Thanks are also due to Ms Emanuela D'Antoni for the photomontage on the cover, made on the basis of material available in the FAO MediaBase and FishBase Best Photos (by J.E. Randall and JJPhoto).

[1] Paragraph 29d of the Plan of Implementation for the World Summit on Sustainable Development.

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