After several years of negotiations, countries have taken a major step against illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing (IUU), one of the greatest threats to sustainable fisheries and related livelihoods.
International guidelines developed through an FAO-led consultative process aim to cut down on IUU fishing by improving the accountability of flag states - those countries which register fishing vessels and authorise them to fly their flags.
The Voluntary Guidelines for Flag State Performance were agreed upon after over five years of consensus-building among FAO member countries. The guidelines will be presented to the FAO Committee on Fisheries (COFI) for endorsement at its next Session in June, 2014.
The guidelines include recommended approaches to urge, encourage, and help flag states comply with their international duties and obligations regarding the flagging and control of fishing vessels. They also present possible actions in response to non-compliance.
While no exact figures are known, it is widely accepted that IUU fishing has escalated in the past two decades and its magnitude is considerable.
The Technical Consultation was funded by the governments of Canada, New Zealand, Norway and the United States of America, and by the European Commission.
The Voluntary Guidelines for Flag State Performance are a real breakthrough. They will be a valuable tool in efforts to prevent, deter and eliminate illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing, said Árni Mathiesen, FAO assistant director-general for Fisheries and Aquaculture.
Ultimately, these guidelines can help to ensure the long-term conservation and sustainable use of precious, living marine resources and ecosystems, Mathiesen added.
We all face the challenge of sustainability, and these guidelines give countries a new way to work together to meet this challenge.
The proposed guidelines are wide-ranging and include, among other things, performance assessment criteria and procedures for carrying out assessments, and the cooperation between flag states and coastal states. They also look at ways to encourage compliance and deter non-compliance by flag states; ways to cooperate with and assist developing states in capacity development, and the role that FAO can play in supporting these processes.
In addition to facilitating the development of the guidelines, FAO will monitor and report on implementation of the guidelines to COFI. It will also provide in-country technical assistance to countries requiring support.
That support may include capacity-building measures like the development of an adequate legal and regulatory framework; strengthening of institutional organisation and infrastructure needed to ensure adequate control of vessels; the development or improvement of monitoring, control and surveillance (MCS) of fishing vessels, and training.
Some flag States may need more support than others, especially developing countries. In certain cases, they may lack the institutional setup and technical know-how. They may be short on human and financial resources. Or, they may lack the drive to direct their efforts and to invest their available resources in the effective implementation of their duties under international laws relevant to fishing, in which case there is a greater need to build awareness of the long-term benefits of compliance, said Matthew Camilleri, fishery liaison officer within the FAO Fisheries and Aquaculture Policy and Economics Division.
The guidelines draw on existing international law, like the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea of 10 December 1982 and other international instruments such as the 1995 FAO Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries and the 2001 FAO International Plan of Action to prevent, deter and eliminate IUU fishing.
COFI is the only global inter-governmental forum where major international fisheries and aquaculture problems and issues are periodically examined and recommendations are addressed to governments, regional fishery bodies, NGOs, fish workers, FAO and the international community.
COFI has emphasised the fundamental importance of compliance by flag States with their duties under international law.