Improving Transparency and Accountability at RFMOs

Photo Credit: Shutterstock
Grantee Pew Chartable Trusts
Grant Amount $1,500,000
Duration Three Years

RFMOs and their member governments are not accountable for whether they act in the public interest. The problem is two-fold: Within RFMOs, there are no transparent or effective compliance regimes to hold member governments accountable for implementing agreed-upon measures and few penalties for noncompliance, allowing bad behavior to persist. Second, their operations are not sufficiently transparent to the people and groups in society who have an interest in them—which insulates member governments from public scrutiny of their decisions. 

This lack of transparency hurts the ability of civil society and the public to understand decisions, provide outside views of whether RFMOs and their member governments are acting to ensure sustainable fisheries, and expose bad actors. Improving the transparency of international fisheries management is key to achieving better outcomes on the water for the fish and the people who depend on them. With additional transparency, countries could deal with each other more fairly because positions taken in bad faith are more difficult to defend. The mere fact that bad actions can be exposed enhances compliant behavior. And transparency increases the accountability and responsiveness of governments. Further, where there is no RFMO accountability, the liability falls on the market—food retailers, in particular. 

In recent years, in large part due to the work of Pew, there have also been promising developments, which have the potential to transform the way RFMOs manage international fisheries. Pew’s international fisheries program targets five core areas that we see as opportunities for reform within RFMOs, including: 

1. De-politicizing management of targeted species through a shift to a more transparent, sciencebased, and automated approach to quota-setting known as harvest strategies; 

2. Increasing accountability by adopting measures to improve compliance with existing rules; 

3. Enhancing oversight of fishing activities through electronic monitoring and expanded observer coverage on longline vessels and through transshipment reform; 

4. Securing protections for vulnerable, non-target populations through bycatch measures and spawning and nursery ground protections; and 

5. Leveraging evolving technology and building cooperation between coastal, flag, market, and port states to track and prevent illegal fishing. 

Collectively, these changes can modernize international fisheries management by increasing the transparency and accountability of RFMOs, and ultimately benefiting the long-term health of international fisheries and the ecosystems they impact. Over the last two years, Pew has led work at RFMOs to secure these improvements, and we already see their impacts in shock proofing RMFO management. For instance, where harvest strategies are in place, RFMOs have adopted new quotas even without formal Commission meetings in 2020. And where old management approaches prevail, measures are simply being rolled over, or in one extreme case, stocks have been left without any regulation due to a lack of consensus among government officials during virtual meetings and/or electronic negotiations. 

This project focuses on increasing accountability through the adoption of improved compliance mechanisms. It also proposes the development of critical external pressure on RFMOs to implement all of these changes through a broad RFMO transparency and accountability coalition that would spotlight the systemic lack of transparency and the failure of RFMOs to protect these resources and the urgent need for reform. The other four areas of work would require additional funding, separate from this proposal. We would welcome further discussion as Pew is scoping work globally to protect vulnerable non-target species and their critical habitats. We see many opportunities to take this work to scale within RFMOs, including leveraging campaign wins such as CITES listing for shark species impacted by RFMO tuna and swordfish longline fisheries and industry commitments to shift to less harmful longline gear.