18 May 2006


18 May 2006
Press Release
Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York

Background Release




NEW YORK, 18 May (UN Office of Legal Affairs) -- With the world’s fisheries suffering dramatic declines as a result of overfishing, countries will meet at United Nations Headquarters from 22 to 26 May, to determine whether international laws can be tightened to better manage and conserve fish stocks on the high seas.

The meeting, the first-ever Review Conference on the 1995 Agreement for the Conservation and Management of Straddling Fish Stocks and Highly Migratory Fish Stocks, will bring representatives of Governments, the fishing industry and environmental organizations to New York, to strengthen implementation of the Agreement and improve the management and preservation of high-seas fisheries.

The issue has political, economic and environmental implications.  The total world export value for fish and fish products was over $71 billion in 2004, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).  Trade of high-seas species has increased 14-fold, to $7.3 billion in value, between 1976 and 2004.  Fishing in marine and inland waters provides direct employment and revenue to an estimated 28.5 million people.

But most of the world’s fisheries have been either fished to their limits, or beyond.  FAO estimates that, in 2004, about one quarter of the stocks it monitors were overexploited (17 per cent), depleted (7 per cent), or recovering from depletion (1 per cent), and in need of rebuilding.  About half of the stocks (52 per cent) were fully exploited, producing catches that were close to their maximum sustainable yields.  Only about one quarter were underexploited (3 per cent) or moderately exploited (20 per cent), and could perhaps produce more.

In 12 of the 16 FAO statistical regions, at least 70 per cent of stocks are already fully exploited or overexploited, and FAO has stressed that the maximum fishing potential has been reached, and that more cautious and restrictive management measures are needed.

Formal assessments are lacking for a large proportion of high-seas fisheries.  But the results of soon-to-be-released analyses made by FAO indicate that about 30 per cent of the stocks of highly migratory tuna and tuna-like species, more than 50 per cent of the highly migratory oceanic sharks and nearly two thirds of the straddling stocks and the stocks of other high seas fishery resources are overexploited or depleted.

The stocks concerned represent only a small fraction of the world fishery resources, upon which millions of people are critically dependant for food and livelihood, but they are key indicators of the state of an overwhelming part of the ocean ecosystem, which appears to be even more significantly overexploited than the exclusive economic zones (EEZs), which extends up to 200 nautical miles offshore.

The Fish Stocks Agreement, which entered into force in 2001, seeks to address these problems.  It covers highly migratory species that regularly travel long distances, through both the high seas and areas under national jurisdiction, such as tuna, swordfish and oceanic sharks.  It also covers straddling stocks, stocks that occur both within EEZs, where coastal States have sovereign rights for the conservation and management of marine living resources, and in areas beyond and adjacent to the zones.  Examples include cod, halibut, pollock, jack mackerel and squid.

There is general consensus that the Fish Stocks Agreement has not been fully implemented.  “There is much more to be done,” said David Balton ( United States), Chairperson of the preparatory meeting for the Review Conference, at that meeting in March.

“The adoption of the Agreement alone is not sufficient,” said the United Nations Legal Counsel, Nicolas Michel.  “To be effective, the provisions of the Agreement have to be translated into concrete measures at the regional, subregional and national levels, and implemented by all.”

According to Mr. Michel, “threats to world fisheries largely relate to unsustainable fishing practices, such as overcapacity of the world’s fishing fleets; overfishing; illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing; and the use of destructive fishing techniques and methods”.

These problems are aggravated by other factors, Mr. Michel said, including issues related to fishing rights and access to fishery resources; the persistence of subsidies that contribute to fleet overcapacity and overfishing; the lack of control by some States over vessels flying their flag, fishing on the high seas; the absence of a management regime in some areas of the high seas; the inadequacy of the geographical or species coverage of some regional fishery management organizations and arrangements; the absence of enforcement and compliance schemes in some of these organizations; the lack of port State control in some countries; and the insufficient cooperation among countries, in collecting and sharing high seas fishery data.

Among other things:

-- Illegal, unreported or unregulated fishing makes up about 14 per cent of the value of global marine catches, for a total of up to $5.9 billion, according to the World Conservation Union (IUCN);

-- IUCN reports that roughly 15 per cent of large-scale fishing fleets globally are registered under a flag of convenience;

-- overcapacity in the world’s fishing fleets -- “too many boats chasing too few fishes”, in the words of a United Nations expert -- is fuelled by Government fishing subsidies which, according to the United Nations Environment Programme, amount to $20 billion a year; and

-- FAO estimates the fish discarded after being caught accidentally -- as “by-catch” -- to be at around 7 million tons annually, representing about 7 per cent of the total annual marine harvest.

The solutions are well known.  These include better monitoring, control and surveillance on the high seas; better controls by Governments of foreign fishing ships docking at their ports and terminals; reduction of the use of flags of convenience; and the application of the precautionary and ecosystem approaches to fishing activities.

States have the main responsibility for implementation, but the Agreement gives a major role to regional and subregional fisheries management organizations, designating them as the main forum for implementation.

There are about 40 such organizations, and new ones are being established.  Some have real management powers and make decisions on allowable catches, quota allocations by fishing nations and technical management measures.  But many have a purely advisory role and foster statistics collection, information exchange and scientific analysis.

In spite of the problems, the Agreement has promoted a new approach by countries, regional fishery management organizations and the fishing industry.  Several countries have incorporated its provisions in their national legislation.  Regional fishery management organizations have included its provisions in their management and conservation measures.  The fishing industry is increasingly realizing the need for “responsible fishing” and for the “ecosystem approach” of preserving not just fisheries, but their wider environment.

The Agreement has also prompted the Ministers of the High Seas Task Force -- made up of fisheries ministers from Australia, Canada, Chile, Namibia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom -- to launch practical initiatives to implement the treaty and improve fisheries governance.  These include strengthening monitoring, control and surveillance of high-seas fishing activity and developing guidelines for regional fisheries management regimes.

The Conference will also seek to increase the number of countries participating in the Agreement, by addressing obstacles that are preventing more States from becoming parties.  So far, 57 countries have ratified the Agreement.

Countries that have not yet joined have cited concerns over two provisions in the Agreement.  One, on subregional and regional cooperation in enforcement (article 21), allows a State party to inspect fishing vessels flying the flag of another State party, in areas of the high seas covered by a regional fisheries management organization, in order to ensure compliance with the conservation and management measures established by that organization.  States have objected to this provision, maintaining that it violates their jurisdiction over vessels flying their flags.

The other provision (article 7) prescribes compatibility between the conservation and management measures adopted in areas under national jurisdiction and those established for the adjacent high seas, so as to guarantee conservation and management of fish stocks in their entirety.  Modalities for adopting such “compatible measures” have raised difficulties for some coastal States and some high-seas fishing States.  Both groups of States agree that the measures applied in the exclusive economic zone and on the adjacent high seas must be compatible to ensure proper conservation and management.  But they have fundamentally different interpretations of how to concretely put in place compatible measures, even if the Agreement lists criteria to assist countries in devising such measures.

The parties to the Agreement are:  Australia, Austria, Bahamas, Barbados, Belgium, Belize, Brazil, Canada, Cook Islands, Costa Rica, Cyprus, Denmark, European Community, Fiji, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Guinea, Iceland, India, Iran, Ireland, Italy, Kenya, Kiribati, Liberia, Luxembourg, Maldives, Malta, Marshall Islands, Mauritius, Micronesia, Monaco, Namibia, Nauru, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Papua New Guinea, Poland, Portugal, Russian Federation, Saint Lucia, Samoa, Senegal, Seychelles, Solomon Islands, South Africa, Spain, Sri Lanka, Sweden, Tonga, Ukraine, United Kingdom, United States and Uruguay.

For further information, please contact, at the Department of Public Information, Edoardo Bellando, tel: (212) 963-8275, e-mail: bellando@un.org; Daniel Shepard, tel: (212) 963 9495, e-mail: shepard@un.org; or visit www.un.org/Depts/los/convention_agreements/review_conf_fish_stocks.htm.

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For information media • not an official record
For information media. Not an official record.