2016 UNFSA Review Conference: Curbing the Wave of Enthusiasm

Thursday, June 30, 2016

The 2016 Resumed Review Conference relating to the Conservation and Management of Straddling Fish Stocks and Highly Migratory Fish Stocks (UNFSA) took place at U.N. Headquarters in Manhattan from May 23-27, 2016. The outcome document serves as an example of the challenges and limitations of international ocean governance.

In the years since the 2010 Resumed Review Conference, there has been positive news in the field of international conservation of the marine environment. Chile, Palau, and the United States have created new Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) in their Exclusive Economic Zones. In early 2015, representatives of 104 nations began drafting a legally enforceable international treaty, which is still under negotiation, for the protection of biodiverse areas beyond national jurisdiction (ABNJ). The treaty would limit unregulated activities on the High Seas and lead to the creation of a global MPA network.

Additionally, in June 2016, the 2009 Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) Agreement on Port State Measures to Prevent, Deter and Eliminate Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated Fishing (PSMA) entered into force after obtaining the required number of ratifications. The PSMA will limit Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated (IUU) fishing by, inter alia, allowing state Parties to deny entry into their ports to all foreign-flagged fishing vessels that do not comply with specific reporting requirements.


This mounting positive news, and the fact that some Member states had achieved substantial individual and collective advances in the field of ocean conservation, contributed to high expectations leading up to the 2016 Resumed Review Conference. Yet it also contributed to a certain sense of disappointment following the Conference.

Much like the 2010 Conference, topics of discussion in 2016 focused on duties nations assumed under UNFSA but have failed to comply with. These include integrating the precautionary approach into their work, implementing data collection and information-sharing mechanisms, and ensuring the protection of certain species, such as sharks. Most of these challenges were left unresolved.

UNFSA ConferenceThe Conference outcome document referenced topics where no progress was achieved, but remained unspecific. No consensus was reached on the need to adopt conservation measures “as soon as possible” and, as a consequence, those words were deleted from the final draft document. Similarly, no progress was made toward requiring environmental impact assessments for large industrial fishing activities. The UNFSA Assistance Fund, which was created to help developing nations fulfill the objectives of the Agreement and depends on voluntary contributions, has been depleted since 2014. No steps were taken to ensure its replenishment.

The Conference missed the chance to discuss specific solutions to some of the most pressing problems affecting the global protection of migratory and straddling fish stocks, such as combating flags of convenience and the “dark fleet,” creating more no-take zones to allow overfished stocks to recover, and ensuring that Member states fulfill their obligations concerning information-gathering and sharing.

The outcome of the 2016 UNFSA Resumed Review Conference is a symptom of a bigger problem: the extremely fragmented nature of international ocean governance. The need to keep the Conference discussions focused exclusively on transboundary fish stocks overlooked the fact that the implementation of UNFSA can only be achieved by simultaneously confronting other environmental problems, such as habitat loss and marine pollution, which have an increasing impact on the overall health of transboundary fish stocks and can only be confronted through international cooperative solutions.

Under the current approach to international ocean governance, there are multiple institutions that govern various facets of ocean governance including UNEP (protection of biodiversity); IMO (shipping); and FAO/RFMOs (fisheries management). This fragmentation constitutes not only a problem of management, but it has also become a constraint to the natural flow of international conference discussions.

Delegates to the UNFSA Review Conference dismiss discussions about the creation of new MPAs to avoid stepping on the toes of the ABNJ Preparatory Committee. Participants to the ABNJ Preparatory Committee do not discuss fisheries management because that is under the jurisdiction of RFMOS. ABNJ also avoids talking about the use of mandatory routes to keep vessels carrying hazardous cargo out of MPAs because that falls under the role of IMO and coastal state regulations. In the meantime, no international conference seems to be discussing the pressing problem of the need to put an immediate end to the use and abuse of flags of convenience. In sum, ocean governance fragmentation keeps highly specialized conference delegates from giving their best advice, and important topics are falling through the cracks.

The UNFSA Review Conference will not resume again until at least 2020. Let’s hope that, in the meantime, negotiations on other marine management agreements will start to build a more holistic governance system for our oceans and clear the path to ensure the overall health of the planet’s ocean spaces.