San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Responsible fisheries: meaning, opportunity

From the print edition

By José Antonio Chaves  |  Legal Advisor, Costa Rican Fisheries Federation (FECOP)

The concept of responsibility is defined by the Collins English Dictionary as the state or fact of being responsible for moral decisions and therefore being accountable, and particularly for an error; and as the capacity that exists in every person to recognize and accept the consequences of an act carried out freely.

Thus, the concept of responsibility applied to fisheries is of particular significance, especially when we become aware of overexploitation, and as we move towards situations already experienced by industrialized nations that have exhausted their resources. 

The term responsible fisheries not only refers to the direct act of extracting fish, but also to all personal and institutional actions carried out in developing, respecting, recovering and conserving the wealth of marine fisheries for ourselves and for future generations.

Responsible fisheries concern everyone, and not only those directly involved in extracting fish and other fisheries resources. Responsible fisheries are based on the fact that the sea is a complex ecosystem and that any extractive action we undertake affects its biodiversity and availability of resources that we do not yet fully comprehend, such as the importance of the sea in controlling climate, and for recreation, transport and other aspects.

Marine resources were previously considered to be inexhaustible, and it was believed that we could benefit from unrestricted access. Major technologies aimed at uncontrolled extraction at the least cost were developed in many parts of the world. However, we very quickly discovered that marine resources are not only finite but also more fragile than we realized.

This is the main concern that led to different lines of thought and discussion that resulted in the approval of the Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries (CCRF) of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), unanimously adopted on Oct. 31, 1995, and representing a voluntary commitment on the part of signatory governments. Costa Rica incorporated it into its judicial system through Decree 27919-MAG on June 14, 1999, which established it as a legally binding regulation. This important text is based on the principle that “the right to fish carries with it the obligation to do so in a responsible manner, so as to ensure effective conservation and management of  living aquatic resources” (Art. 6.1).

This regulation sets out the main guidelines for responsible fishing, to be shared by both authorities and civil society that directly or indirectly benefits from the wealth of the sea. A review of the principles and arguments of the code of conduct is thus pertinent.

The CCRF sets out the need for ecosystem protection. It proposes an evaluation of the negative impact of human activity to reverse its effects and to recover not only fish stocks that are actively extracted but also associated noncommercial species (Art. 7.2.2). As far as responsibility is concerned, this regulation demands that we enact the measures required to guarantee fisheries are of the necessary quality and diversity, and their availability is maintained for present and future generations (Art. 6.2).

As a second measure, the CCRF indicates the need for all fishery-related decisions made by authorities and even by users to be based on the most recent and correct scientific data possible (Art. 6.4), so that fishing is not carried out blindly, but is based on sound science (Art. 12.1). This enables the development and protection of resources, particularly fisheries habitats such as nursery and spawning areas, and habitats critical to species reproduction (Art. 6.8). 

One of the basic pillars of the commitment to responsible fishing is concern for and protection of the reproduction capacity of species to be fished in the future using and applying all available knowledge. Herein lie two principles of responsible fishing: We have the commitment to leave the sea and its resources as we found them or in an improved condition, using the whole scientific and technical arsenal at our disposal, so that future generations are able benefit from them. Never before have we had such information and means at our disposal, in the form of the communications media, to carry out such a task.

The other basic measure relating to responsible fisheries is broad and consistent application of the precautionary principle. This principle, internationally adopted in the context of environmental protection at the 1992 Earth Summit (the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development), held in Río de Janeiro, was incorporated into our legislation through Biodiversity Law No. 7788, Article 11, which establishes that “when there is a danger or threat of grave or imminent damage to the elements of biodiversity and to the knowledge associated with these, the absence of scientific certainty should be used as a reason to postpone the adoption of effective protection measures”; and in FAO’s words, “the absence of adequate scientific information should not be used as a reason for postponing or failing to take measures to conserve target species, associated or dependent species and non-target species” (Art. 6.5). 

This mandate clearly places us face-to-face with one of the main meanings of responsibility: We should take responsibility today for future damages we could incur. The tool the CCRF places in our hands is simple: In the face of doubt or lack of knowledge, decisions favor nature.

The CCRF also indicates that selective and environmentally safe fishing gear should be further developed and applied to maintain biodiversity, conserve population structure and aquatic ecosystems and protect fish quality (Art. 6.6). In other words, it is the responsibility of fishers, authorities, technicians and scientists to develop fishing gear aimed at target species that causes the least possible damage. 

The text indicates the need to minimize waste – in other words, reduce and eliminate gear used in fishing a specific species that involves wasting a large number of other species, such as the trawl nets of shrimp-fishing vessels. It is calculated that shrimp-fishing vessels discard approximately 95 percent of the catch from trawl nets. In order to obtain 1 kilogram of shrimp, about 20 kilos of other species are killed and thrown overboard.

There is no doubt that it is difficult for the ordinary citizen to imagine how we can stop this killing. Nonetheless, we continue consuming and demanding shrimp in many shapes and forms. A considerable difference could be made by simply including this information in our consumption habits.

Responsible fishing also means monitoring and control by national authorities to ensure compliance with these conservation and management measures (Art. 6.10) by national and international vessels that fly the national flag, thus complying with the code of conduct (Art. 6.11). Our authorities have a highly important role to play in ensuring compliance with all measures necessary for responsible fishing.

FAO indicates the need for decision-making processes that are transparent and achieve timely solutions to urgent matters (Art. 6.13) as part of the responsibility of the state within the concept of responsible fisheries, by facilitating broad consultation with other interested sectors, and by cooperating in resolving disputes relating to fishing activities in a timely, peaceful and cooperative manner (Art. 6.15). In this sense, and regarding responsible fishing, the state has an obligation to ensure that all fishing facilities and equipment, as well as all fisheries activities, allow for safe, healthy and fair working and living conditions, and meet internationally agreed standards adopted by relevant international organizations (Art. 6.17). 

Finally, the CCRF, in addition to indicating the importance of fair trade of fisheries products (Art. 6.14) and the importance of aquaculture as a means to promote diversification (Art. 6.19), recognizes the contribution of the population in understanding issues relating to the conservation and management of fishery resources. There is a need to broaden our mindset and the way in which we address issues pertaining to the management of fishery resources, to take the principles of the code into account, and to demand not only the responsible management of resources, but also responsible consumption on our part, as well as the responsible management of national policies by authorities.

We need to take a stand on marine fishery resources – a stand that involves assuming responsibility for our acts today and the well-being of future generations. We have the information, the tools and the obligation to do so. The sole missing ingredient is the personal desire to become engaged.

Sponsored by the Costa Rican Fisheries Federation

Comments are closed.