World fisheries management system failing

Two peer-reviewed studies published in Science and Marine Policy, respectively, have found that governments and regional fisheries management organisations (‘RFMOs’) are struggling to tackle illegal and unreported fishing. Failure to deal with the problem adequately is threatening fish stocks, marine ecosystems and the long-term sustainability of the high seas fishing industry. The study in Science found that the current system of port state control lacks transparency, accountability, and the global reach to ‘punish’ illegal fishers. Up to 26m tonnes of illegally-sourced fish—worth as much as $23.5bn—are landed every year, it says, and unless a better system is developed to address these faults the situation is unlikely to improve.

The study stresses the need for the recently-agreed Port State Measures Agreement (‘PSMA’)—a UN Food & Agriculture Organization pact designed to tackle illegal fishing—to be supported and implemented effectively. To date, 15 countries and the EU have signed the PSMA, but none has yet ratified it (with 25 ratifications necessary before it can take effect). ‘Should the PSMA not achieve broad ratification and instead follow the fate of prior international agreements, then implementation of port state measures will remain patchy,’ argues the study, which will in turn ‘provide continued loopholes for illegal operators.’

The second study, conducted by researchers at the University of British Columbia, Canada, found that two-thirds of commercial fish stocks under RFMO management are either severely depleted or overfished. And according to the researchers involved, ‘many RFMOs lack a general commitment to set and implement conservation measures to keep fish populations at sustainable levels.’ The findings also highlighted a gap between planned (i.e. on paper) and actual effectiveness in terms of fish stock management. Furthermore, researchers working on the study claim that establishing an RFMO had, for the most part, no effect on trends among declining stocks and, in some cases, preceded a sharp decline in the stocks they managed.

Hugh Chalmers, London