The COVID-19 pandemic has had significant impacts on the management of fisheries worldwide.1 In response, governments have implemented a mix of policy measures as they try to mitigate the social and economic damage (OECD, 2020[1]). However, many fish stocks straddle the exclusive economic zones (EEZs) of several countries or are predominantly in areas beyond national jurisdiction (ABNJ) and require a regional approach to management.

The so-called “multilateral fisheries” require different governance approaches and the COVID-19 pandemic has posed a different set of challenges. Many of the fisheries targeting these stocks are under the jurisdiction of a Regional Fisheries Management Organisation (RFMO).2 An assessment issued by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) in May 2020 highlighted the potential negative consequences of the pandemic on monitoring, control and surveillance (MCS) and on scientific research undertaken by RFMOs (FAO, 2020[2]). Crucially, the reduced monitoring and enforcement in multilateral fisheries could increase the opportunity for unscrupulous operators to engage in illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing (OECD, 2020[1]). Understanding what these impacts are and how to mitigate them effectively is vital to the sustainability of multilateral fisheries.

Based on a survey undertaken in July 2020 of 13 RFMOs3 (Table 1) and nine OECD countries4 that also responded, as well as discussions with experts, this paper identifies on-going disruptions to the work of RFMOs caused by the pandemic and assesses the potential implications they have had on IUU fishing, sustainable resources management, and on the functioning of RFMOs. It provides recommendations for policy makers and managers working in multilateral fisheries on the policies and strategies that can safeguard the effective management of these areas.

Restrictions on travel imposed by many countries to combat the spread of COVID-19 have severely impacted in-person observation in multilateral fisheries by preventing observers5 from embarking on vessels. Except for GFCM, all RFMOs surveyed have observer requirements,6 and for 69% of these some form of human observation was suspended, either of transhipments, port inspections, or the presence of observers on fishing vessels (Figure 1).

As the pandemic continues, finding pathways to restart international observer programmes and bring back compliance monitoring to agreed-upon levels will become more urgent. Countries should identify multilateral fisheries observers as “key workers” providing an essential service, and exempt them from the travel restrictions and border controls that may prevent them from doing their work (IMO, 2020[4]) (Annex B). Appropriate health and safety precautions would be required to ensure fisheries observers can travel safely and do not become vectors of COVID-19 (ICS, 2020[5])). Without such actions, countries and RFMOs risk increases in IUU fishing.

Reduced levels of compliance monitoring in multilateral fisheries highlight the role of countries in preventing IUU fishing by enforcing management measures that are consistent with international instruments, such as the International Plan of Action to Prevent, Deter and Eliminate Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated Fishing (IPOA-IUU) (FAO, 2001[6]) and the Port State Measures Agreement (PSMA) (FAO, 2016[7]).

Furthermore, a set of principles developed by New Zealand in co-operation with the European Union regarding policy responses to limit the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on multilateral fisheries provides useful guidance for policy makers (Box 1).

The waiving of or reduced compliance with observer and surveillance programmes in multilateral fisheries has two major impacts: it increases the possibility for IUU fishing to occur and it reduces the ability of many RFMOs to detect IUU fishing. The FAO found 87% of RFMOs are experiencing, or expecting negative consequences on monitoring, control and surveillance (MCS) of fishing activities and the fight against IUU fishing due to the COVID-19 pandemic (FAO, 2020[2]). This is of concern for many RFMOs, which have limited capacity to enforce their regulations via technological solutions, such as the use of electronic monitoring systems.

The impact of the pandemic on IUU fishing will depend on the type and the stringency of the observer requirements waived, and how fishers respond to changes in prices and costs generated by the crisis. For example, some tuna RFMOs surveyed (CCSBT, IATTC and WCPFC) require on-board observers on up to 100% of vessels (in the case of purse seiners for IATTC, ICCAT, WCPFC, as well as all carrier vessels authorised for transhipment at sea from large-scale long liners for CCSBT and IATTC). The waiving of on-board observation in Pacific tuna fisheries – high-value industrial fisheries – could have significant impacts on IUU fishing. If IUU fishing does increase in this area, it may undermine the sustainability of these fisheries, with long-term economic and ecological consequences. This is a particular concern for species of Bluefin Tuna, which already face sustainability concerns in some regions.

Despite the widespread expectation of increased IUU fishing, no RFMOs surveyed has observed an increase in the level of IUU fishing as of July 2020 (Figure 2). There are likely large differences between changes in IUU fishing across multilateral fisheries due to differences between compliance measures waived and the specific socio-economic context of individual fisheries. For example, in areas where observer and surveillance programmes have continued largely as normal (ICCAT,7 NEAFC, GFCM, SEAFO and SIOFA), levels of IUU fishing may have remained stable. In others, increases in IUU fishing may have been offset (at least partially) by an overall reduction in fishing effort Figure 3). However, in regions where on-board observation has been waived and fishing effort has remained stable, there may be stronger incentive to engage in IUU fishing to increase profits since the risk of detection is reduced. Given IUU fishing is difficult to detect, the lack of an observed increase at a time of reduced compliance monitoring is not surprising. As such, some countries surveyed highlighted the need for RFMOs to scrutinise this possibility in their compliance analytics.

Remote electronic monitoring8 (REM) of vessels has been proposed as an alternative (or supplementary) method to ensure compliance in multilateral fisheries. Two of the surveyed RFMOs (ICCAT and SIOFA)9 have policies on the use of REM, allowing electronic monitoring to replace human observer coverage for compliance monitoring (Ewell et al., 2020[8]).10 However, neither of these RFMOs impose penalties for disrupting REM coverage nor have centralised systems in place to review REM footage.11 Significant investment in technical and human capacities is needed to analyse the data produced by these systems if they are to be used for compliance purposes. In view of this, while REM systems are a promising tool for compliance monitoring in the medium-to-long term, at present they are unlikely to play a major role ensuring compliance in the absence of human observers.

In addition to REM systems, other forms of remote sensing ‒ notably satellite data ‒ are used to monitor fishing effort and IUU fishing (i.e. Global Fishing Watch). The uptake of these technologies by RFMOs has been slow, with only three of the surveyed RFMOs having a centralised vessel monitoring system (VMS)12 (i.e. directly feeding data to the RFMO), while others only require VMSs monitored by flag states. In the latter cases, RFMOs are not able to independently verify vessel positions,13 hampering remote review of fishing activity.14 Moreover, in some cases VMS data from satellites are directly administered and controlled by governments and are only provided to RFMOs as aggregated values with a time lag of several months due to confidentiality requirements (Taconet, Kroodsma and Fernandes, 2019[9]).

Several of the surveyed RFMOs and countries expressed hope that the COVID-19 pandemic will spur the uptake of these technologies (Figure 4).15 However, REM systems are generally considered to be expensive (although costs would decrease if deployment became widespread), and their use requires the development of legal frameworks and standards at regional levels to ensure consistent quality, confidentiality, and usability of data. This is true for other forms of remote sensing – without adequate data-sharing agreements overcoming the issue of data security and penalties for non-compliance, RFMOs will not be able to exploit their full potential.

Ensuring the pandemic will lead to the uptake of technology to monitor IUU fishing and fishing effort in multilateral fisheries will require a concerted effort by both RFMOs and their contracting parties (CPs). Sharing best practices amongst RFMO parties on the use of remote sensing technologies could help increase their uptake and overcome resistance to their use amongst fisheries actors. Co-operation between RFMOs and their CPs is also needed to develop the regulatory frameworks, such as data-sharing and access agreements, required to implement these technologies effectively.

Co-operation and resource sharing between CPs and non-contracting parties (NCPs)16 can play a role in ensuring observer programmes function effectively while COVID-19 vaccines become available in the medium term. For example, the co-ordination of data collection and alternative measures between regions and countries, as well as bilateral and multilateral agreements on sharing of MCS data and procedures, could help fill geographical gaps in monitoring capability of high seas fishing. The Niue Treaty Subsidiary Agreement (NTSA), for example, is a regional agreement in which members of the Pacific Islands Forum Fisheries Agency agree on common MCS policies and enhance co-operative efforts in monitoring, prosecuting and penalising operators of IUU fishing vessels (FFA, 2019[10]). The International MCS Network, which currently has 59 countries, the European Union and two RFMOs (CCAMLR and CCSBT) as members, offers a multilateral forum for the exchange of information and experience with respect to MCS measures combatting IUU fishing, as well as the development of MCS capacity through training opportunities.17

The pandemic has highlighted the need for timely and effective monitoring mechanisms for RFMOs. This could be an opportunity to build consensus toward improving data transparency between RFMOs and beyond. For example, establishing global databases for IUU vessels (cross-listing)18 and for catch documentation (possibly building on existing platforms such as the FAO’s global record and the PSMA global information exchange system). Co-ordinated data standards could help increase the efficacy of monitoring by RFMOs, although this is still some way off.

The majority of RFMOs (85%) and countries (88%) surveyed think that the current pandemic has revealed institutional limitations of RFMOs. The pandemic therefore offers an opportunity to address these limitations and strengthen RFMOs processes, for example by reforming decision-making processes.

The COVID-19 pandemic has potentially undermined the ability of RFMOs to manage multilateral fisheries by reducing the evidence base for decisions, impacting decision making and disrupting the functioning of RFMOs themselves. Several restrictions adopted by national health authorities in response to the spread of COVID-19, including travel but also social distancing and the use of indoors facilities, have prevented many RFMOs from holding planned in-person meetings. As of July 2020, nearly all RFMOs (92%) have experienced disturbances of their scheduled meetings due to the pandemic (Figure 5). All RFMOs have held virtual meetings, often with reduced agendas. As the restrictions continue in 2021, understanding how to use virtual meetings effectively for all decisions and not just for the most urgent matters is increasingly important. The sharing of best practices between RFMO parties on the most effective tools and methods for facilitating negotiations in virtual settings is crucial for the effective management of multilateral fisheries.19

The need to reduce the agendas of virtual meetings has limited discussions of important but not urgent issues. For example, discussion of scientific work based on research surveys (i.e. NPFC), on agreement of new CMMs or quotas (i.e. IOTC), and on strategic issues (i.e. GFCM). This is not universal, however. For example, CCSBT set a three-year global TAC limit and its allocation on southern Bluefin tuna for 2021-2023 on schedule. Delaying decisions on topics not considered urgent could undermine the management of multilateral fisheries if this leads to delays in the adoption of new CMMs and to changes to existing management where necessary. Decisions on which items to include in truncated meeting agendas and on which to defer can have important consequences for fisheries management. Transparency in agenda setting is crucial to ensure the interests of all parties are considered and there is broad agreement on the balance of topics to be covered.

The switch to virtual meetings has exacerbated existing issues20 around RFMO decision making, with 85% of surveyed RFMOs reporting disruption to their decision-making processes (Figure 6). While many RFMOs and CPs have found virtual meetings challenging, for RFMOs with a small number of CPs the switch to virtual meetings may be associated with greater efficiency or accessibility (i.e. NEAFC21 and SIOFA22), especially if all delegates have a reasonable proficiency in a common language (i.e. NAFO and NEAFC).

In general, virtual meetings have limitations beyond reduced agendas, with important impacts on decision making and the governance of multilateral fisheries. The participation of countries in virtual meetings can suffer from technological constraints. Internet connections can be unreliable, particularly in developing countries and regions such as the Pacific or West Africa, limiting their ability to participate. For example, WCPFC and ICCAT have experienced disruptions in online communication with members from those regions. When some parties are not able to fully participate in discussions, this can reduce the chance of reaching consensus and delay decisions. It can also undermine equality by enabling the better connected countries to achieve more favourable decisions.

The switch to virtual meetings has social and political impacts that are hard to measure. Negotiations by digital means may lead to reduced levels of trust, less co-operation, and lower levels of satisfaction with results when compared to face-to-face negotiations (Naquin and Paulson, 2003[11]). Several RFMOs and countries23 have noted that the switch to virtual meetings has made informal conversations and side meetings between parties considerably more complicated to arrange. The loss of these communication channels can make negotiations of contentious issues more challenging and additional effort is required by parties to address these issues through other communication channels. This may exacerbate power imbalances by making it more difficult for smaller economies to develop collective negotiating strategies (Davis and Hanich, 2020[12]).

The pandemic has also affected evidence production, with 46% of RFMOs experiencing negative impacts from the cancellation or postponement of research surveys (i.e. biological sampling) and scientific meetings (Figure 7). These problems are exacerbated in the regions where observer requirements have been disrupted.24 A reduction in available evidence and an increase in the uncertainty of the data on which to base management decisions can have important consequences for the management of stocks.

The sharing of best practices between RFMOs for negotiating CMMs and other issues in a virtual setting is vital to help overcome the problems they face when undertaking such meetings. Understanding why some RFMOs have been more effective in using virtual tools, which tools are the most effective,25 and how to facilitate virtual negotiations is key. Initiatives such as the FAO’s Regional Fisheries Bodies Secretariat Network (RSN) could act as an important forum for discussion and sharing of best practices (Box 2).

Further, the existing decision-making mechanisms (mostly consensus-based) should be reviewed and reformed where necessary to facilitate timely decision making when in-person meetings are not possible.26 The development of intersessional decision-making processes (rarely used at present) to make decisions on topics which cannot be covered in virtual meetings would help to ensure issues are negotiated and implemented in a timely manner. Some RFMOs already have such processes, but there are limits on the type of issues that can be agreed upon.27 For example, integrating new technologies (i.e. the use of conference software) and reviewing decision timelines could help RFMOs adapt to a rapidly evolving situation. Moreover, establishing more efficient voting protocols combined with adequate objection procedures28 would help increase the effectiveness of RFMOs. When considering such decision-making provisions, care should be taken to ensure transparency and legitimacy of the processes.

RFMOs can prepare for similar events in the future by formalising extraordinary processes, such as introducing special clauses (force majeure) or frameworks applied in the crisis. In this regard, CCSBT’s new guidelines29 setting clear principles and procedures applied in extraordinary circumstances offers best practices as to how RFMOs can strengthen their accountability and transparency associated with CMMs.

Potentially, the largest impact of the pandemic on the functioning of RFMOs is financial uncertainty. As countries try to cut costs in the wake of the economic impacts of COVID-19, they may defer or reduce contributions to RFMOs. However, some RFMOs benefit from savings on the costs of cancelled physical meetings and as of August 2020 only one country has publicly requested a deferral of RFMO fees,30 and another has expressed concern about meeting future financial obligations. These issues may worsen if more countries choose to make similar requests as the economic crisis associated with the pandemic continues. The distribution of these financial impacts will not be uniform, with the largest impacts most likely occurring in the regions with the lowest management capacity already. It is vital, therefore, that the international community co-operates to ensure recent progress in fisheries management at the regional level is not lost due to the economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.


[12] Davis, R. and Q. Hanich (2020), “Transparency in fisheries conservation and management measures”, Marine Policy,

[8] Ewell, C. et al. (2020), “An evaluation of Regional Fisheries Management Organization at-sea compliance monitoring and observer programs”, Marine Policy, Vol. 115,

[13] FAO (2020), Chronicles from the Secretariats. Regional fishery body secretariats’ network, FAO,

[2] FAO (2020), The impact of COVID-19 on fisheries and aquaculture – A global assessment from the perspective of regional fishery bodies: Initial assessment,

[7] FAO (2016), Agreement on Port State Measures to Prevent, Deter and Eliminate Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated Fishing,

[6] FAO (2001), International Plan of Action to Prevent, Deter, and Eliminate Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated Fishing,

[10] FFA (2019), Niue Treaty Subsidiary Agreement, (accessed on 27 October 2020).

[15] Hutniczak, B., C. Delpeuch and A. Leroy (2019), “Intensifying the Fight Against IUU Fishing at the Regional Level”, OECD Food, Agriculture and Fisheries Papers, Vol. 121,

[5] ICS (2020), COVID-19 Guidance for Ship Operators for the Protection of the Health of Seafarers v3, Marisec Publications,

[4] IMO (2020), Circular Letter No.4204/Add.6 - Preliminary list of recommendations for Governments and relevant national authorities on the facilitation of maritime trade during the COVID-19 pandemic, (accessed on 10 December 2020).

[3] Løbach, T. et al. (2020), “Regional fisheries management organizations and advisory bodies. Activities and developments, 2000–2017”, FAO Fisheries and Aquaculture Techinal Papers, Vol. No. 651,

[14] Michelin, M., N. Sarto and R. Gillett (2020), Roadmap for Electronic Monitoring in RFMOs, CEA Consulting,

[11] Naquin, C. and G. Paulson (2003), “Online bargaining and interpersonal trust.”, Journal of Applied Psychology, Vol. 88/1, pp. 113-120,

[1] OECD (2020), Fisheries, aquaculture and COVID-19: Issues and policy responses,

[16] OECD (2009), Strengthening Regional Fisheries Management Organisations, OECD Publishing,

[9] Taconet, M., D. Kroodsma and J. Fernandes (2019), Global Atlas of AIS-based fishing activity - Challenges and opportunities, FAO,

IMO Circular Letter No.4204/Add.6 of 27 March 202031 contained the following recommendations to member states about measures to facilitate ship crew changes in seaports:

  • Designate professional seafarers and marine personnel, regardless of nationality when in their jurisdiction, as “key workers” providing an essential service.

  • Grant professional seafarers and marine personnel with any necessary and appropriate exemptions from national travel or movement restrictions in order to facilitate their joining or leaving ships.

  • Accept, inter alia, official seafarers’ identity documents, discharge books, STCW certificates, seafarer employment agreements and letters of appointment from the maritime employer, as evidence of being a professional seafarer, where necessary, for the purposes of crew changes.

  • Permit professional seafarers and marine personnel to disembark ships in port and transit through their territory (i.e. to an airport) for the purposes of crew changes and repatriation.

  • Implement appropriate approval and screening protocols for seafarers seeking to disembark ships for the purposes of crew changes and repatriation.

  • Provide information to ships and crews on basic protective measures against COVID-19 based on WHO advice.


← 1. This brief was originally prepared for the 126th meeting of the OECD Fisheries Committee.

← 2. The creation of RFMOs is mandated under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and the United Nations Fish Stock Agreement (UNFSA).

← 3. As the survey was conducted amongst RFMO Secretariats, the views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the RFMO parties.

← 4. Australia, Canada, Chile, Italy, Japan, Korea, Mexico, New Zealand and the United Kingdom.

← 5. Independent specialists are typically employed or mandated by governments to collect information whilst on board vessels in order to support fisheries science and monitor compliance with regulations and to better understand at-sea operations.

← 6. At present, NEAFC has observer requirements only with regards to exploratory bottom fisheries (the scientific observer) in the context of the protection of vulnerable marine ecosystems in the NEAFC Regulatory Area.

← 7. In case of ICCAT, while there is a waiver on observers only 1% of trips took place without the normally mandated observation (communication with the ICCAT Secretariat).

← 8. It usually requires an integrated system of cameras, gear sensors, video storage and GPS units on vessels (Michelin, Sarto and Gillett, 2020[14]).

← 9. Although the paper (Ewell et al., 2020[8]) includes NAFO in a list of RFMOs with a regional level policy for the use of REM systems across CPs, the NAFO Secretariat confirms that it is not the case.

← 10. While SPRFMO does not have an REM policy, it does allow electronic monitoring to replace human observation for compliance monitoring (Ewell et al., 2020[8]).

← 11. In practice, REM footage is typically stored on a hard drive that is collected at the end of fishing trips and can then be reviewed by an onshore analyst given the high costs and technological challenges associated with transmitting data via satellite, Wi-Fi or cellular networks in real-time (Michelin, Sarto and Gillett, 2020[14]).

← 12. Centrally managed VMS has been practised by SPRFMO and WCPFC, and NPFC plans to develop a similar scheme (Hutniczak, Delpeuch and Leroy, 2019[15]).

← 13. While some commercial data providers (i.e. Global Fish Watch) can supply relevant vessel information (mostly based on the automatic identification system - AIS), data from such commercial platforms are usually not as detailed the VMSs data of CPs.

← 14. Some RFMOs such as NEAFC and NAFO receive the position of vessels (VMS data) in real time from CPs and NCPs. For example, NEAFC operates a joint inspection system in which the fisheries inspectors at sea rely on NEAFC systems to get up-to-date relevant information (through VMSs of CPs) on the activities of other NEAFC fishing vessels (Communication with the NEAFC Secretariat).

← 15. RFMOs: CCSBT, GFCM, IATTC, NPFC, SPRFMO and WCPFC; OECD countries: Australia, Canada, Chile, Korea, Mexico, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom.

← 16. Countries or economies which adhere to CMMs set by RFMOs, but are not formally bound by adopted CMMs via a membership agreement (Hutniczak, Delpeuch and Leroy, 2019[15]).

← 18. Protocols for sharing IUU vessel lists currently in place are not standardised and practices vary across RFMOs (Hutniczak, Delpeuch and Leroy, 2019[15]).

← 19. For example, in response to a lack of specific provisions in the existing rules of procedure concerning the holding of virtual meetings, IATTC adopted a set of ad hoc rules of procedure for the meeting of its bodies in 2020 and established a working group to develop permanent rules of procedure on virtual meetings in the future.

← 20. As RFMOs commonly rely on consensus-based decision-making even when their procedures allow for voting, the diverse interests of the large membership tends to induce the high transaction costs of making decisions, requiring a substantial amount of negotiations and discussions among parties in the margin of official meetings (Hutniczak, Delpeuch and Leroy, 2019[15]). Even a consensus is reached, it may come at the cost of avoiding the resolution of fundamental issues with competing positions, such as the TAC and allocation mechanisms, making it difficult to generate momentum for further changes on the basis of original scientific advice (OECD, 2009[16]).

← 21. NEAFC has held meetings more frequently with higher registrations particularly from less-affluent members in the virtual setting.

← 22. SIOFA has been discussing greater use of the virtual meeting as a cost-saving option for a few years.

← 23. NEAFC, NPFC, WCPFC, Canada, Chile, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom.

← 24. Among the five RFMOs reporting that their evidence production have not been affected by COVID-19, in-person observer requirements in four of these RFMOs have been either uninterrupted (CCAMLR, SPRFMO, SEAFO) or disrupted only to a very limited extent (NAFO).

← 25. Some RFMOs have managed to allow for more normal experience including the opportunity for bilateral and side meetings via the use of advanced conference software.

← 26. Such review and reform can entail a modification of the basic instrument of the RFMO, with all the political and legal implications that such a process may have, including in terms of the time needed.

← 27. In case of IATTC, all questions related to budget and conservation and management measures can be discussed and agreed.

← 28. SPRFMO’s voting mechanism combined with the limited scope for objection (formal obligation for justification and specified grounds on which the objection can be made) and an automatic objection review process are considered to be an exemplary model (Hutniczak, Delpeuch and Leroy, 2019[15]).

← 29. “Guideline on principles for action and steps to be taken in relation to extraordinary circumstances”, adopted at the Twenty-Seventh Annual Meeting: 12-16 October 2020 (

← 30. The Republic of Seychelles, in its letter to the IOTC on 4 June 2020, requested a 50% waiver of its annual contributions payment for three years (2020-22) to allow the country to use its scant foreign currency resources to readjust its economy (IOTC CIRCULAR 2020-27:


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