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Twenty Years of the FAO Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries

Sustainability Economics Politics +2 more

GLOBAL - Concerns about global overfishing and the wider ecosystem impacts of fishing activity both within countries economic exclusive zones and the high seas have been in the mind of many for decades and more. During the early 1990s, a number of international instruments were passed with the goal of achieving sustainable fisheries.

by Marine biologist
Samantha Andrews thumbnail

In a bid to consolidate the principles arising from these different instruments, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) set about to produce a single, consistent, non-mandatory set of guidelines for the management and development of fisheries, whilst achieving conservation objectives. Just over twenty years ago, on the 31st October 1995, the Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries was adopted.

The Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries (The Code) has ten broad and widespread objectives, ranging from the promotion of “protection of living aquatic resources and their environments”, to promoting “the contribution of fisheries to food security and food quality, giving priority to the nutritional needs of local communities”.

The Code isn’t just aimed at the FAO’s 194 member nations, 2 associate members, and single member organisation (the EU). Anyone who has an interest in sustainable fisheries - non-member nations, non-government organisations, fishery managers, and fishing operators can - and have - adopted The Code.

Whilst The Code itself is entirely voluntary, parts of it is enshrined in international law, including the United Nation Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). The Code looks beyond extraction, with articles outlining standards and principles for processing, trade, aquaculture, research, and wider integration of fisheries into coastal area management also woven into the document and its objectives.

High support

The FAO believes that “if the Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries is implemented successfully by all people who are involved in fisheries and aquaculture it can be expected that fish and fisheries products will be available for consumption by present and future generations”.

There are a number of key requirements for this to happen, such as international collaboration, management and research capacity building for developing nations, and the incorporation of The Code’s principles and objectives into national policy and legislative instruments.

At a ceremony commemorating 70 years of the FAO in November, FAO Director General José Graziano da Silva pointed to The Code as one of the organization’s major achievements – and one he adds, has global impact.

Low compliance issues

Since the FAO have no legislative authority, The Code could never be anything but voluntary. The trouble with voluntary is that no-one, not even those who have publically decided to embrace The Code, can be pushed into implementing effective measures to meet any of the objectives.

Instead The Code must rely on the willingness of the fishing industry, fishery managers, fishing communities, and ‘peer-pressure’.

Revolutionising fisheries management in terms of governance and industry structure is not something that can be accomplished overnight.

Nevertheless the findings of some studies on the status of nation’s compliance can be viewed as somewhat disappointing.

In 2008, Professor Tony Pitcher and colleagues released their report looking back at “twelve years fishing under the UN Code”, demonstrating that the top 53 fishing countries, who were at the time landing over 95% of the global reported marine catch, were lacking in their compliance to Article 7 – Fisheries Management, which deals with issues like Illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing (IUU), overcapacity, and small-scale fishery issues. Not one of the countries assessed achieved a “good” compliance rating of 70% or higher.

Only 6 countries - Norway, USA, Canada, Australia, Iceland, and Namibia - made it to 60%. In 2012, a FAO-lead evaluation reported “general dissatisfaction with the current monitoring of the implementation of the Code”, undermining the FAOs potential for supporting Code implementation.

Implementation has seen results

To say that low compliance means The Code has been ineffective would be a gross misunderstanding and unfair statement. Research published in 2012 by Dr Marta Coll and colleagues found that countries with higher levels of compliance saw increases in fisheries sustainability, and a decrease in loss of production and in total catch.

In fisheries in Kerala, India, fisheries scientist Sunil Ail and colleagues reported that The Code has resulted in improvements been made in regards to licensing, improving fisher safety, and documenting catch.

The Marine Stewardship Council, an organisation who aims to promote sustainable fishing practices through an ecolabel and fishery certification scheme, cite The Code as one of the primary foundation documents on which their Fisheries Standard was built.

The United States of America, who are well-known non-signatories of UNCLOS, have committed to implementing The Code, both within their own waters and internationally. Whilst parts of the American capture fishery and aquaculture industry has its issues, steps towards more sustainable fisheries that take into account ecological and socio-economic factors have been made in several fisheries.