A call for openness in governing one of the world’s largest fishing grounds

By Holly Koehler

20 September 2017

Without participation and transparency, there is no effective governance. And without effective governance from Regional Fisheries Management Organizations (RFMOs), highly migratory tuna resources cannot be managed sustainably.

For years, we’ve witnessed a critical governance gap at the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC), which is significantly less transparent than its four peer RFMOs. WCPFC’s limited information-sharing and closed decision-making regarding the assessment of its members’ compliance with WCPFC conservation measures have undermined tuna-conservation progress in the Western and Central Pacific Ocean — the world’s largest tuna-fishing region, where millions of people depend on fisheries for food and employment. And it has reduced public confidence in the effectiveness of this organization.

Once again, in partnership with leading NGOs, ISSF is imploring WCPFC to change rules that are obstructing transparency.

Inadequate Observer Access

First, WCPFC must allow accredited observers to attend and participate in all of its meetings, including its Compliance Monitoring Working Group.

All RFMOs have policies and procedures that allow NGOs and other groups to apply to observe their annual Commission meetings, scientific bodies and working groups. Most RFMOs allow unfettered access to all such meetings — including even to potentially sensitive meetings examining RFMO member countries’ compliance with RFMO conservation measures — as long as certain rules and procedures are followed.

The WCPFC is the one exception among the tuna RFMOs. WCPFC’s Compliance Monitoring Working Group meeting has been closed to observers since it was created seven years ago. That group convenes through the Technical and Compliance Committee (TCC), which is holding its 13th Regular Session from Sept. 27-Oct. 3. The compliance group reviews and assesses Members’ implementation of critical WCFPC conservation measures and determines if there has been non-compliance. And the group considers if measures are unclear, or if other factors are causing gaps in full implementation. Transparency in this process through the participation of accredited observers is essential for this work to be considered fair and trustworthy. 

Last year, WCPFC did agree to: 1) set a reasonable fee for observer participation at all Commission meetings, and 2) develop and adopt guidelines for the full participation of observers during all Commission sessions.

But progress has been slow. Many organizations that have followed WCPFC since its founding nearly two decades ago found the draft guidelines unclear, unfair, and unsatisfactory.

Guidelines that Miss the Mark

Earlier this year, ISSF sent a joint letter to the WCPFC on observer guidelines. The letter was co-signed by the Nature Conservancy, Birdlife International, the PEW Charitable Trusts, Conservation International, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), Greenpeace, Lewis & Clark Law School, and the Sustainable Fisheries Partnership. Despite being the subject of these guidelines, none among our group of co-signers were consulted as these rules were developed.

In the letter, we outlined the importance of NGO observers at compliance meetings and argued for rules that enable meaningful participation and, consistent with best practices in place in other tuna RFMOs, not be overly restrictive. We asked that confidentiality rules are fair, and that observers be given access to relevant meeting documents. Disclosure rules and distinctions between what is confidential and what is not must be clear and consistent; any breaches of confidentiality should be investigated fairly and through a clear process with opportunities for reply by the observer. Unfortunately, none of the comments provided by NGOs in advance as part of this letter, or individually on the draft guidelines once released, were taken into account.

Observer organizations and WCPFC Members share the common goal of ensuring that Pacific tuna fisheries are sustainably managed. NGOs invest significant effort and resources supporting the WCPFC to help meet the region’s objectives by providing:

  • Technical and scientific information to inform the development of conservation and management measures
  • Technical and/or capacity building assistance
  • Financial support to address specific needs or gaps

A Best Practice that Honors the WCPFC Charter

In the past year, WCPFC has had ample time to acknowledge the importance of NGO participation and develop fair, clear and best-practice observer guidelines, which, after all, is enshrined in Article 21 of its own Convention.

That’s why it’s so disappointing that, as another Compliance Monitoring Working Group meeting is upon us, WCPFC continues to block NGO and industry organizations from observing.

If compliance discussions take place behind closed doors, with no openness or checks on accountability, how will the public and market have confidence in the sustainable management of global fisheries?

RFMOs must ensure that measures are based on the best possible data, and implemented and enforced fairly – and for that, effective compliance processes are essential. Assessing compliance allows an RFMO to:

  • Address and deter non-compliance by members
  • Assess the degree to which its measures are being implemented and complied with
  • Reward those members that are abiding by the rules
  • Assist those that need it
  • Penalize those that are undermining the effectiveness of conservation and management measures
  • Promote system legitimacy

WCPFC simply must do better and guarantee transparent participation from outside groups in this important part of its governance. We will be continuing our outreach to help make this transparency happen as soon as possible.