In 2006, President Bush issued a memorandum the Secretaries of State and Commerce directing them to work multilaterally to end unregulated destructive fishing practices on the high seas and to work to create effective, science-based conservation and management regimes for high seas fisheries more generally. The Department of State, in cooperation with the Department of Commerce’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), has achieved unprecedented international cooperation in fulfilling these objectives. By the end of 2008, all high seas bottom fishing that could cause significant harm to any vulnerable marine ecosystem (VME) must either stop or must be regulated to prevent such harm.
United Nations General Assembly Resolution 61/105, adopted by consensus in November 2006, served as the initial vehicle for securing these commitments. Resolution 61/105 calls for specific actions by States, RFMOs, and the FAO to identify vulnerable marine ecosystems, assess whether certain fishing practices may significantly harm them, and to develop effective conservation and management measures for these fisheries to prevent such harm, or halt fishing in these areas.
The Department of State both chaired the negotiations on this resolution and led the U.S. delegation, which included experts from the Department of Commerce, that brokered agreement on its provisions. With Resolution 61/105 adopted, the Departments of State and Commerce have worked in numerous other international fora to ensure full implementation of these commitments.
The United States has been in the forefront of efforts to apply the provisions of UNGA Resolution 61/105 within existing RFMOs, and to develop interim management regimes for the Northwest Pacific and the South Pacific, where longer-term arrangements are still under negotiation.
Four regional fisheries management organizations (RFMOs) have the mandate to manage bottom fishing: the Northwest Atlantic Fisheries Organization (NAFO), the Northeast Atlantic Fisheries Commission (NEAFC), the Southeast Atlantic Fisheries Organization (SEAFO) and the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR).
NAFO: In September 2008, NAFO took action to be fully compliant with UNGA Resolution 61/105. At this meeting, NAFO established a comprehensive protocol for new deep-sea fisheries, a set of requirements for vessels that encounter evidence of a VME in the course of fishing operations, and a framework for conducting risk assessments on both new and existing fisheries. NAFO also compiled a first comprehensive map of the existing fishing footprint in its Regulatory Area and closed an additional seamount to all bottom fishing activities. The footprint and the risk assessment will be refined in the coming months, as NAFO members undertake more detailed mapping and scientific analysis.
NEAFC: In July 2008, a joint scientific and policy working group of NEAFC recommended rules for bottom fishing that substantially mirror those adopted by NAFO. While the United States is not a party to NEAFC, it is expected that NEAFC will adopt the recommended rules so that it too is complying with the provisions of UNGA Resolution 61/105.
SEAFO: In 2006 and 2007, SEAFO closed ten seamounts to all fishing activity until 2010. While SEAFO continues to allow limited exploratory fishing in these areas, bottom fishing cannot resume until the location of VMEs are mapped and the impacts of bottom fisheries are assessed. Although the United States is not a member of SEAFO, we do observe the meetings and will continue to press for full implementation of UNGA Resolution 61/105.
CCAMLR: In 2007, CCAMLR adopted a strong conservation and management measure that is consistent with UNGA Resolution 61/105. The measure limits bottom fishing at current levels until November 2008. Any subsequent bottom fishing may only proceed if it is determined that such fishing would not have significant adverse impacts on vulnerable marine ecosystems. The CCAMLR Scientific Committee will review assessments of such activities and the Commission, based on the scientific advice of the Scientific Committee, will adopt additional conservation and management measures, as appropriate. The CCAMLR measure also requires the cessation of bottom fishing if a VME is encountered and that vessels report the encounter to the Secretariat. CCAMLR’s bottom fishing rules go beyond the provisions of the UNGA resolution in several respects, including a requirement that all vessels engaged in bottom fishing must have an observer on board.
Negotiations are ongoing to establish new fisheries management regimes for two additional high seas regions, the Northwest Pacific and the South Pacific. In 2007, States participating in both negotiations agreed to interim conservation measures that are fully consistent with UNGA Resolution 61/105. They also agreed to “freeze the footprint” of current bottom fishing (in terms of effort, catch and area), as well as provisions for data collection and monitoring, developed an interim benthic assessment framework, and a process for assessing possible adverse impacts of bottom fishing on VMEs. In parallel, the participants continue to negotiate a treaty to establish a new RFMO.
The participants in the Northwest Pacific negotiations (the United States, Japan, the Republic of Korea and the Russian Federation) adopted interim measures in February 2007, and refined them in October 2007. In October 2008, the participants agreed to science-based Standards and Criteria for Identification of VMEs and Assessment of Significant Adverse Impacts on VMEs and Marine Species, which they will use in implementing the interim measures until the permanent regime is in place. Participants also agreed to expand the area of application for the permanent regime to include the entire North Pacific Ocean, not just the Northwest Pacific.
The United States took a leadership role at the FAO in the negotiations on International Technical Guidelines for the management of deep sea fisheries. The final Guidelines include clear criteria and standards for identifying vulnerable marine ecosystems and assessing and determining significant adverse impacts to such ecosystems.