Ecosystem-based fisheries management in tuna RFMOs / by Francisco Blaha

While working in FAO Rome, I trained on Ecosystems Based Fisheries Management (EBFM) and it was quite detailed and made sense… yet reality has a different take on good concepts. EBFM is a widely accepted concept and various international instruments require its application. However, its application at national level almost always brings about confrontations and resistance among managers, proponents, and stakeholders, which unless they all understand and accept the specific goals, the ecosystem approach will not succeed. So what chances are at RFMO level, which are hardly an example of common goals? 

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Interestingly, this is a question that Maria José Juan-Jordá, Hilario Murua, Haritz Arrizabalaga, Nicholas K Dulvy, and Victor Restrepo have tried to answer in a recent article for Fish and Fisheries: Report card on ecosystem-based fisheries management in tuna regional fisheries management organisations

The Abstract reads:
International instruments of fisheries governance have set the core principles for the management of highly migratory fishes. We evaluated the progress of tuna Regional Fisheries Management Organizations (tRFMOs) in implementing the ecological component of ecosystem-based fisheries management (EBFM). We first developed a best case tRFMO for EBFM implementation. Second, we developed criteria to evaluate progress in applying EBFM against this best case tRFMO. We assessed progress of the following four ecological components: target species, bycatch species, ecosystem properties and trophic relationships, and habitats. We found that many of the elements necessary for an operational EBFM are already present, yet they have been implemented in an ad hoc way, without a long-term vision and a formalized plan.
Overall, tRFMOs have made considerable progress monitoring the impacts of fisheries on target species, moderate progress for bycatch species, and little progress for ecosystem properties and trophic relationships and habitats. The tRFMOs appear to be halfway towards implementing the ecological component of EBFM, yet it is clear that the “low-hanging fruit” has been plucked and the more difficult, but surmountable, issues remain, notably the sustainable management of bycatch. All tRFMOs share the same challenge of developing a formal mechanism to better integrate ecosystem science and advice into management decisions. We hope to further discussion across the tRFMOs to inform the development of operational EBFM plans.

The conclusions are clear:
All the tRFMOs, at best, stand half way towards delivering the ecological elements of EBFM. We find progress has been implemented in an ad hoc manner, in the absence of a long-term vision and a formalized implementation plan. While overall performance varied across the ecological components, tRFMOs have made considerable progress within the ecological component of target species, moderate progress in the ecological component of bycatch species, but little progress in both the components of ecosystem properties and trophic relationships, and habitats.

All tRFMOs have adopted a myriad of management measures to manage target species and minimize the effects of fishing on bycatch species, yet no measures have been adopted to account for and minimize the impacts of fishing on the trophic relationships and food web structure of marine ecosystems, and protection of habitats of special concern.

Furthermore, none of the management measures adopted for target or bycatch species have been linked to pre-established operational objectives, associated indicators and reference points, precluding them to be activated when pre-defined reference points are exceeded, with the exception of Southern bluefin tuna in CCSBT and for dolphin species in IATTC. These findings revealed that the hard but important tasks of actually managing both target and bycatch species with pre-established management responses linked to clear operational objectives, indicators and reference points needs to be urgently addressed.

All the tRFMOs face similar challenges of coordinating all ecosystem research activities, developing an effective mechanism to better integrate ecosystem research and advice into management decisions, and communicating them to their respective Commissions. If tRFMOs were ambitious about operationalizing EBFM, we envisage a practical next step would be to develop EBFM plans to set up a roadmap to guide and advance towards its full implementation.

Furthermore, we believe its implementation should be seen as a step-wise adaptive process which should be supported by the best ecosystem science. With this comparative review of progress, we hope to encourage dialogue between tRFMOs to solve many of the current challenges facing them to fully implement and operationalize EBFM. Next, we present a set of grand challenges accompanied with primary recommendations that in our judgement, if addressed, could accelerate the implementation of EBFM across the tRFMOs. We also try to highlight ongoing initiatives and opportunities that potentially could help overcome these challenges.

  • Grand challenge 1—Break with misconceptions of what EBFM is and who should be the main drivers of change
  • Grand challenge 2—Commit to operationalize EBFM
  • Grand challenge 3—Develop operational EBFM plans
  • Grand challenge 4—Conduct a prioritization assessment to guide research to advance towards becoming a best case tRFMO
  • Grand challenge 5—Establish mechanisms to coordinate and integrate ecosystem research and to communicate ecosystem advice to the Commissions
  • Grand challenge 6—Establish mechanisms to facilitate collaboration across tRFMOs
  • Grand challenge 7—Increase external collaboration to increase capacity and bring new expertise within tRFMOs
  • Grand challenge 8—Strength decision-making and dispute settlement processes for more effective implementation of EBFM and adoption of conservation and management measures