The Development Law Service

A tribute to William Ross Edeson: 25 November 1942 – 12 October 2021


On 12 October 2021, William Ross Edeson (Bill to his friends, colleagues and acquaintances), long time Senior Legal Officer with the FAO Legal Office (1988 to 2003) succumbed to a long illness that he had been coping with for many years in the latter part of his life. His passing ended a rich and active life as a family man, colleague, mentor and friend to many and a professional journey as a legal scholar, philosopher and practitioner, spanning many universities, regional and international organizations, countries, regions and continents. Bill’s legacy however remains, fondly etched in the memories of those who had the privilege of knowing him.

As Senior Legal Officer with the FAO Legal Office, Bill advised governments, providing much needed technical assistance and support for the practical application and enhancement of knowledge in international law and the Law of the Sea. He advised on fisheries law and helped countries to translate the norms reflected in international instruments national legal frameworks for sustainable fisheries and aquaculture. Some of Bill’s notable advisory missions were the series of legislative review and drafting assignments he carried out under the Norwegian-funded Fisheries Law and Advisory Programme (FIMLAP) to assist governments of developing States including Members of the Organization of East Caribbean States, CARICOM and State Members of the Pacific Forum Fisheries Agency (FFA). FIMLAP was succeeded by the FishCode Programe under which Bill continued to provide assistance to FAO Member governments until his retirement in 2003.

Bill was the principal advisor to many of FAO’s global processes which led to the development and adoption of international fisheries instruments including the Compliance Agreement which was designed to strengthen flag State responsibilities, the Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries and the International Plan of Action to Prevent, Deter and Eliminate Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated (IUU) Fishing. He was also instrumental in the establishment, review and enhancement of the mandates of regional fisheries bodies, including the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission and the General Fisheries Commission for the Mediterranean.

Bill drew from his background in academia and applied research, keen mind and the strength of his practical experience to collaborate extensively on impact initiatives with visiting scientists and national and international experts. One such collaboration with a Norwegian legal expert from the Directorate of Fisheries of Norway eventually led to FAO’s Model Scheme on Port State Measures which is the precursor to the Agreement on Port State Measures, the first legally binding treaty adopted to prevent, deter and eliminate IUU fishing. 

Before he joined FAO, Bill had established himself as a respected academic, teaching on a wide range of subjects including Public International Law, Law of the Sea and Constitutional Law, in distinguished institutions of high learning, including Monash University, Melbourne (1969-1970), University of Wales, Cardiff (1970-1973), University of Birmingham, UK (1973-1975) and the Australian National University in Canberra (1975-1988). During his tenure with FAO and thereafter, Bill continued to write prolifically, publishing articles and books on the Law of the Sea, constitutional and treaty law, sustainable development in fisheries, use of marine living resources, international fisheries instruments, regional fisheries bodies, fishing entities, and international legal personality.

Bill returned to academia following his retirement from FAO in 2003, accepting a professorial position at the Australian National Centre for Ocean Resources and Security at the University of Wollongong, New South Wales. Bill was also officially engaged as a Legal Advisor to the FFA from 2010 to 2012 although in the years spanning over a decade after he retired from FAO, he provided legal advice and support to the 17 members of the FFA on a wide variety of fisheries-related matters including discharging their responsibilities under the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea and the UN Fish Stocks Agreement, combatting IUU fishing, and flag State responsibilities. Through his direct interaction with others as well as his written works, Bill demonstrated his wit and gift of the gab from which his friends, colleagues and the wider public drew much knowledge and amusement. 

To reminisce about Bill on a personal level is to recount how I first met him in October 1993 at a fisheries law enforcement workshop conducted by the FFA in Rabaul, Papua New Guinea. The Rabaul Workshop gathered Pacific lawyers and law enforcement officers as well as international experts like Bill to brainstorm innovative ways, within the bounds of the applicable law, to ensure compliance and enforcement against illegal fishing. We discussed options such as the use of strict liability for fisheries offences, evidentiary provisions in fisheries legislation to facilitate the use of electronic devices and records and effectively establishing facts in prosecutions, joint fisheries enforcement by neighbouring coastal States, cross-authorization of enforcement officers, extra-territorial application of national laws, the effective use of hot pursuit, adopting the US Lacey Act clauses in fisheries legislation and the curious option of considering extradition for fisheries offences. These were the type of thought-provoking ideas that Bill relished; envelope-pushing concepts and options at the national, sub-regional and regional levels that could potentially be translated into action and drawing lessons therefrom to inform and replicate good State practice which supported sustainable fisheries. 

After the closing of the Rabaul workshop, Bill was again in his element, inviting a small group of participants to visit World War II monuments and to assist an American enforcement officer and avid dog-statue enthusiast, who always made it a point to discover dog statues in every new place he visited. That extracurricular activity spoke to Bill’s passion for history, in particular curious facts, and noting interesting features of his man-made and natural surroundings and showing these off to whoever was interested. I later benefited from Bill's humorous observations and practical advice on living in Italy and his tireless verbal commentaries which accompanied the numerous visits he led to interesting Roman sites such as the ruins of Villa Adriana or the fascinating Villa d’Este and Villa Farnese and their gardens.
My most recent rendezvous with Bill was in August 2019 at a waterfront cafe in Honiara, Solomon Islands after his participation at a Regional Judicial Symposium where he was doing what he was most passionate about; imparting knowledge of public international law, the Law of the Sea and fisheries law in service to the FFA Member countries.  Bill was never one to wallow in regret and self-pity. This dedicated mentor and professional, colleague and friend, while showing faint strains of his affliction bravely borne, was ever his shrewd, generous, cheerful and admirable self, deftly diverting attention away from his person and allowing those around him to relax and enjoy his dry humour and company. Grazie infinite Bill.

Bill is survived by his wonderful family - wife Lyn, his three children Sian, Juliet and Gregor, and their respective partners and children. Our affectionate thoughts and deep sympathy go out to them for their loss.

Arrivederci Professore. You will be sorely missed. Requiescat in pace.

Blaise Kuemlangan