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Global Compliance with the UN Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries

May 9, 2012

The UN Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries sets the minimum standard for fisheries management around the world.  It’s a voluntary code, but takes the form of soft international law given that it has so widely been agreed to.

How have countries done since the code’s approval in 1995?  A 2009 commentary by Pitcher et al. reveals some very poor rates of non-compliance (full report here).

The code provides a detailed consensus for the scientific, sustainable, responsible and equitable exploitation of fishery resources. Now, 13 years after its publication, a detailed evaluation for the 53 countries landing 96% of the global marine catch (based on reported catch in 1999) reveals dismayingly poor compliance…

To get to this, the authors developed an innovative method to rank compliance:

We evaluated the published and unpublished literature, and probed expert opinion to answer 44 questions about adherence to Article 7 of the code, which covers fisheries management, for the 53 countries.

The questions fall into six evaluation fields. The first three measure intentions to comply with the code, rating a country’s balance of conservation and economic aims; its stated management targets; and its use of precaution when expanding fisheries and establishing no-take zones. The remaining questions deal with the effectiveness of day-to-day compliance, including the rigorous use of quantitative reference points, minimizing wasteful discard, by-catch and impact on habitats such as coral reefs; socio-economic factors such as maintaining beneficial small-scale fisheries and coastal communities; and the control of illegal fishing and ‘flags of convenience’, when ships are registered in countries other than those where they are owned in order to evade regulation.

Questions were scored against criteria on a scale of zero to ten, with upper and lower estimates of confidence provided. We considered a score of seven or better to be ‘good’; below four a ‘fail’ grade; and everything in between to be a ‘pass’. Although such simple grades can seem arbitrarily chosen, the threshold criteria used for each question were as objective as possible.

The study revealed quite a few interesting country- and regional-level findings:

  • Only six countries have overall compliance scores whose confidence limits overlap with 60% (Norway, the United States, Canada, Australia, Iceland and Namibia), yet four of these top-ranking countries falter by being awarded at least three fail grades, revealing that there is room for improvement even for countries at the top of the rankings.
  • 28 countries, representing more than 40% of the world fish catch, had unequivocal fail grades overall.
  • North America (Canada and the United States, n=2 countries) scored towards the top of the pass range in intentions, and in the mid range for implementation.
  • Australasia (n=2) has quite high compliance ratings, with intentions achieving the ‘good’ range.
  • The averages for African (n=8), Asian (n=20) and Latin American (n=6) countries fail in nearly all categories.

The authors also checked to see what regular measures of international development best correlate with the code compliance scores.  Very interesting, but not surprising to this social scientist, is the high correlation with the World Bank Governance Index, which measures such parameters as political stability, violence, corruption, and accountability.

The authors conclude by suggesting that the time has come for a new “integrated international legal instrument covering all aspects of fisheries management”.  I think this would be great, but so massively unlikely that it’s a bit silly.

Instead, I would say that we need to find a way to mobilize far more money and talent into ocean conservation advocacy.  Magnuson-Stevens was not won in the U.S. through an international agreement, but through a fair amount of money backing smart environmental campaigns.

What’s really needed is the creation of more catalyzing events and activities such as Rio+20, James Cameron and Richard Branson’s ocean exploration, and the new OceanElders group.  I think it is no surprise with all these activities we have seen the launch this year of the Global Partnership for Oceans.

As for a model, look to Oceana for their ground up approach to conservation.  This international nonprofit has operated rather more like a domestic organization by setting up national-level offices in the U.S., Spain, and Chile. As a result, Chile has seen many excellent advances in conservation in the past several years and Oceana-Spain has probably done quite well given the fierce political opposition there.

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