World fisheries: in stable but critical condition

The 2009 State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture (SOFIA) report released last week in Rome produced very much the same findings as the previous report released in 2007. The document, published by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) at the Committee on Fisheries (COFI), reported that global trends in marine fish stocks have continued to deteriorate slightly.

Trawler, Hobart harbour, Australia

While a stable situation may sound like good news, the reality is that the state of certain important fish stocks remains of grave concern. Only limited progress has been made in tackling the main long-term problems facing the fishing industry and the marine environment such as bycatch and discarded fish, illegal fishing, the destruction caused by bottom trawling and the poor state of shark and tuna populations.

The severe decline of large predator species, such as shark and tuna, is compounded by the additional removal of large numbers of small prey fish.” warns Harlan Cohen, IUCN Advisor on Ocean Governance and International Institutions. “Additional pressures such as climate change and ocean acidification underscore IUCN’s plea for urgent measures to improve management of the world’s fisheries resources.”

IUCN unveils new tools to enhance fisheries management

IUCN and the Census of Marine Life (CoML) joined forces to hold a COFI side event to reach out to fisheries managers with presentations and discussions on new scientific findings and initiatives relevant to fisheries. There was a special focus on the deep seas and new technologies that are being developed to help manage these remote areas. IUCN is working in cooperation with CoML and other scientific organisations to develop support tools for the practical application of scientific criteria for identifying ecologically and biologically significant open ocean and deep sea areas so nations can better manage and protect them. The scientific criteria were adopted by the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) in 2008 and Parties and relevant organizations were urged to apply them.
Related links: Report on the COFI side event on fisheries management tools

Moving towards vessel and port control

As a means of tackling illegal, unregulated and unreported (IUU fishing), many countries support a new binding instrument already under development that would require parties to apply a minimum standard of port state measures to fishing vessels that enter their ports. IUCN urged COFI participants to apply the rules to all vessels involved with fishing activities including transport and supply vessels. This would in effect prevent market access to vessels flying the so-called “flags of non-compliance” of nations that do not fulfil criteria for responsible fishing as defined under the Law of the Sea. Key to making this policy a success, in IUCN’s view, is the development of a Global Record of fishing vessels supported by an international Monitoring, Control and Surveillance (MCS) network. IUCN shares others concerns that the Global Record may be delayed due to a lack of funds.
Related links: IUCN’s statement on vessel and port control

Climate Change again a main focus

Through one of its interventions, the IUCN delegation brought attention to the impact of climate change on the world’s poor. Climate change impacts are already being felt today with ocean acidification (due to increasing carbon dioxide concentrations) affecting the marine food chain and the observed migration of some fish stocks towards the poles.

Major shifts are clearly occurring in the Arctic with ice melt opening up more possibilities for fishing nations to exploit. There is currently limited understanding of Arctic ecosystems and fish stocks, therefore IUCN strongly welcomed a US fisheries management council decision to close a large area within the US exclusive economic zone (EEZ) to fishing until such time as scientific investigation and assessment has been carried out and urged other nations to consider adopting similar measures.
Related links: IUCN’s statement on climate change

Work on bycatch reduction

Many delegates at COFI supported a new COFI process to develop guidelines on bycatch management. IUCN welcomes this approach but emphasised the need for a fishery-specific approach based on specific assessment. Several practices, such as modifications to fishing gear, have the potential to avoid or minimise bycatch and improve the survival rate of unwanted bycatch species that do get caught in the gear.
Related links: IUCN’s statement on bycatch reduction

Keeping fins on sharks

Costa Rica (the first State to mandate shark landings with fins attached) requested the FAO to convene a workshop to discuss technical aspects of a ‘fins attached’ rule to prevent shark finning at sea. This proposal, in line with IUCN Recommendation 4.114: Global policy against shark finning was supported by many Latin American countries, several of which have adopted similar legislation.
Related links: IUCN’s resolution on shark finning

Other Resources

Full report on COFI meeting


  • Harlan Cohen, PhD, Advisor on Ocean Governance and International Institutions
    IUCN USA & Caribbean Multilateral Office, 1630 Connecticut Avenue NW
    Third Floor, Washington, DC 20009, USA
    Tel: ++ 1.202.387.4826
    Fax: ++1.202.387.4823
  • Kristina Gjerde, High Seas Policy Advisor, Ul. Piaskowa 12c
    05-510 Konstancin-Chylice, Poland
    Tel: ++ 48 22 754 1803
    Fax: ++ 48 22 756 4919
Work area: 
Global Policy
Fisheries & Aquaculture
Ocean Governance
Environmental Governance
Protected Areas
Protected Areas
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