Stopping Illegal Fishing on the High Seas


High Seas Task Force


From March 2004 to March 2006, the Round Table on Sustainable Development was the host for a novel effort by a small group of countries to bring pressure to bear on a particularly intractable international issue - the Ministerially led Task Force on Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated Fishing on the High Seas. 

The process reached its conclusion  in  March 2006 when ministers from the six  participating countries     –      Australia,    Canada,    Chile, Namibia,   New      Zealand   and   the   United Kingdom  –   along   with   their  partners  from WWF,  IUCN and  the  Earth  Institute,  met in Paris to release their final report –   Closing the Net – and action plan.


The genesis of the Task Force can be traced to a sense of frustration with the sprawling and verbose outcome of the Johannesburg Earth Summit in 2002.  Over 160 paragraphs of text were devoted to recalling previous resolutions, declarations, and treaties.  Countries urged one another at some length to do things they had all previously urged one another to do but failed to do so.  The failure to act could be raced in many cases to the sheer ponderousness of large-number interactions and the inevitability that anything truly binding will only be allowed to move at the pace of the slowest and most reluctant party.


The Round Table on Sustainable Development at the OECD decided to see if it would be possible to choose a single issue from this lengthy list and move at the pace of the most motivated countries (which, by definition would be few in number). Illegal fishing on the high seas was chosen because it was genuinely global (it relates to the global ocean commons which is beyond the control of any single party) and because it avoided getting entangled with domestic political sensitivities.


The result was the decision by a small number of countries who did not claim to be representative in any way, declaring their determination to tackle the issue to the extent they were able to even if others didn’t share their sense of urgency. 


From the outset, the Task Force was – as stated in its long title – ministerially led.  In other words, Task force membership was initiated by Ministers themselves, not their bureaucracies.  It was Ministers who had to front up. The five original participants (Canada joined later) decided to invite some other stakeholders to join them on the basis that governments aren’t the sole source of wisdom on an issue as complex and multi-faceted as this.  They were successful in attracting NGO support in the form of IUCN and WWF International.  Both organisations had to contribute their chief executives to the Task Force to match the ministerial-level representation by countries. They also attracted the active support of the Earth Institute at Columbia University. 


Every Task Force member had to contribute money (or push someone else to do so).  The most generous country contributor was Australia by far.  Notwithstanding that, in the end about half the necessary funds had to be raised from philanthropic sources, most notably the Packard Foundation and the Oak Foundation.  That money funded a secretariat of just three people for a little over two years. 


Task Force members agreed that the analysis the secretariat undertook should lead to a series of practical measures that could be undertaken immediately by the membership regardless of whether the wider global community wanted to act.  They didn’t want those measures to undermine ongoing multilateral processes in places like the FAO, the IMO and the UN.  Rather, they wanted to lead the way in the hope that others might follow thereby giving some impetus to otherwise slow processes.


Most importantly, the members wanted to put themselves in a very clear advocacy position at the end of the process.  They wanted to be able to ask non-member countries two simple questions: (1) do you agree with our analysis?  If you don’t, specify what’s wrong with it.  (2) If you can’t fault our analysis, what stops you from joining us in taking the action we are committed to taking?


The Task Force secretariat was required to see its entire analysis in the light of those demands.  The aim was to avoid yet another lengthy, learned analysis of the problem with no discernible impact on its resolution.


The final report of the Task Force - Closing the Net  - brings together in one place a complete analysis of the economic, trade, environmental, developmental, criminal, legal and enforcement aspects of the IUU fishing problem.  It also sets out the details of a suite of practical measures that could be implemented by Task Force members without waiting for the rest of the world.  Some of these were, in effect, common positions to advocate in global forums. However, at least two were ‘concrete’ in the sense that they were designed to deal directly with illegal operations. These were:

  • A proposal to resource properly the International Monitoring, Control & Surveillance Network currently hosted by NOAA in the United States.  This network is supposed to be a hub for enforcement agencies in more than 40 member countries.  Up until now only the USA has ever contributed any real resources and there have been no dedicated full-time staff.  If there is ever to be a ‘fishing Interpol’ it will require more than voluntary part time efforts.  The Task Force agreed that real resources should be found to give the network wings.

  • A proposal to establish an inventory of fishing vessels on the high seas drawing on the large number of publicly available data-bases that are currently completely fragmented and difficult to access for forensic purposes.

In addition, the Task Force decided to force the pace on debating how Regional Fisheries Management Organisations should perform. 

It decided to establish an expert panel to develop a ‘model’ for such an organisation which could then become a standard against which regional organisations could benchmark themselves.

The Round Table has remained actively involved in this initiative. 


Following    the   release   of    the    final report , immediate steps were taken by the Task   Force  partners   to   implement  the  recommendations.

Australia, Canada, Chile, Namibia, New  Zealand, US and the United Kingdom are taking  the  lead in implementing elements  of   recommendations  and engaging other  like-minded  countries   and organisations  in   combating   IUU   fishing.

EU Commissioner  Borg  highlighted  the  work of the  High   Seas   Task  Force   at  the   Northern Fisheries Ministers conference in Norway in June 2006.


Further information on the composition and work programme of the High Seas Task Force website can be accessed via the following link .




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