Russia, EU tangle over NPFC membership

Published on
July 29, 2019

The North Pacific Fisheries Commission (NPFC), responsible for managing Pacific saury, Pacific chub mackerel, two squid species, and other stocks across a large portion of the Pacific, met for its fifth annual session from 16 to 18 July in Tokyo, Japan. Members include Canada, China, Japan, South Korea, Russia, the U.S., and the Republic of Vanuatu.

The Pew Charitable Trusts, a Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, U.S.A.-based non-governmental organization, made several proposals prior to the meeting, including that the NPFC should require all vessels engaged in fishing activities – including those that transship NPFC-managed species – be registered (flagged) to an NPFC member government, or that the commission develop a system in which cooperating non-members are recognized by the commission when they have fleets operating in the region. However, the NPFC’s current policy of allowing some vessels to carry the flag of non-members was extended another year. 

“We are hopeful that this loophole can be closed at the next commission meeting,” Grantly Galland, an expert from The Pew Charitable Trusts’ international fisheries team who attended the meeting, said. “However, the acceptance of Panama as a cooperating, non-contracting party could reduce the likelihood that the relevant vessels go unchecked, as the significant majority of transshipment vessels operating under this exception are flagged to Panama.” 

Transshipping is a weak point in traceability for the fishing industry, as it can obscure the origin of fish and allow fishing vessels to under-report catches.

Two other suggestions made by The Pew Charitable Trusts were to adopt a centralized vessel monitoring system and to establish a compliance monitoring scheme in 2020 or soon after. At the meeting, the NPFC did adopt the framework for a centralized vessel monitoring system, though there are some outstanding issues to complete. 

The Pew Charitable Trusts also urged the NPFC to commit to greater transparency in the fisheries management process by making all meeting documents – including draft conservation and management measures submitted by members, and annual compliance reports – publicly available on the NPFC website.

Progress on TACs

Pacific saury and chub mackerel are the most heavily fished species in the Convention area. Japanese and Russian vessels operate mainly within their exclusive economic zones (EEZs), while Chinese, Korean, Chinese Taipei, and Vanuatu vessels operate mainly on the high seas of the North Pacific. At the meeting, the NPFC adopted a total allowable catch (TAC) for Pacific saury for the first time, for 2020, though it was set so large as to have little conservation effect

“This year, NPFC took positive steps to begin limiting the catch of Pacific saury. This practice will be particularly important as scientists advance their work on stock assessment for this and other priority species in the area,” Galland said. “Once the assessment is completed, it will be critical to adjust the limit to ensure that fisheries targeting Pacific are well managed while preserving its important position in North Pacific food webs. It is also important that NPFC develop appropriate pre-agreed harvest control rules that are automatically triggered based on the stock status of Pacific saury and other priority species, like Pacific chub mackerel. That process will hopefully begin as early as next year.”

Regarding chub mackerel, NPFC could not reach consensus on a TAC but Galland said, “It was clear that this will be necessary in the future, particularly since that stock is depleted.”

EU denied

The NPFC is a closed regional fishing management organization (RFMO), meaning that new entrants can only join and participate in the fishery by consensus of the current members. Last year, an application from the European Union for membership was rejected. 

In its statement regarding the refusal, the E.U. noted that the decision may have been taken without consideration of Article 8(3) of the United Nations Fish Stock Agreement (UNFSA). Under this agreement, all nations have a right to join a regional fisheries management organization (RFMO) if they have a “real interest” in the fishery, but since this language is vague, it can be interpreted differently by each RFMO. At this year’s meeting, Russia blocked consensus on ascension to membership by the E.U.

RFMOs and their member nations do not have a right in maritime law to prevent other nations from utilizing the high seas (the areas outside of any nation’s exclusive economic zone, or EEZ) for fishing, but in practice, this is balanced against the need to avoid overfishing and to implement sustainable management. Many RFMOs categorize fishing by non-members under illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing, which thereby triggers measures aimed at combating IUU fishing. 

Should a vessel begin operating on the high seas in the NPFC Convention Area without being authorized to fish, Galland said, it could (and likely would) be listed on NPFC’s illegal fishing list. 

“While that alone might not be enough to deter unauthorized fishing activity, this commission has cooperative agreements with some other regional fisheries management organizations to automatically cross list vessels determined to be acting illegally. So far, that has prevented outside governments – like the E.U. – from allowing their fleets to operate in the region without first becoming NPFC members,” he said.

So the members of an RFMO can effectually shut out new entrants, claiming control of the resources of the high seas in the interest of sustainable management. This is an emerging area of maritime law, as noted by Erik J. Molenaar, deputy director of the Netherlands Institute for the Law of the Sea (NILOS) and editor of Strengthening International Fisheries Law in an Era of Changing Oceans.

Molenaar told SeafoodSource that another RFMO, the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC) has been challenged by an applicant for being closed – while making reference to the notion of “real interest” as laid down in Article 8(3) of the Fish Stocks Agreement. However, no dispute settlement procedures have so far been instituted on this issue in relation to any RFMO. 

Thus, the way forward for the E.U. to participate in this fishery appears unclear.

Image courtesy of the North Pacific Fisheries Commission

Contributing Editor reporting from Osaka, Japan

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