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Participation in Regional Fisheries Organisations

This summary has been archived and will not be updated, because the summarised document is no longer in force or does not reflect the current situation.

Participation in Regional Fisheries Organisations

The Commission reviews the origin, development, structure and role of regional fisheries organisations (RFOs). It stresses the importance of greater Community involvement in these organisations and assesses the resources required for such participation. Lastly, it puts forward proposals on task sharing between the Member States and the Commission.


Commission communication of 8 December 1999 "Community participation in Regional Fisheries Organisations (RFOs)" [COM(1999) 613 - Not published in the Official Journal].


Although some RFOs date back to the beginning of the 20th century, they played a mainly advisory role. It was only in the early 1970s that new RFOs began implementing resource management schemes in an attempt to strike a better balance between the exploitation and conservation of resources whilst preventing conflicts of interest between the countries concerned.

The changing role of RFOs

The change in the role of the RFOs was brought about by the realisation that some stocks were in a precarious state, and was marked by several milestones:

  • the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (FR) establishing the principle of balance between rights and obligations in the exploitation of resources;
  • intensified fishing by distant-water fleets following extension of the exclusive economic zones (EEZ);
  • the United Nations conference on the environment and development in Rio de Janeiro in 1992;
  • the agreement adopted by the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) in 1993 promoting compliance with conservation and management measures on the high seas;
  • the Code of conduct for responsible fisheries adopted by the FAO in 1995;
  • the New York Agreement (FR) adopted the same year on the conservation and management of straddling stocks * and the main migratory fish stocks.

The latter agreement in particular has reinforced the role of RFOs, as it implies that:

  • existing RFOs will be spurred on and new RFOs created where none exist;
  • countries that do not belong to an RFO in a particular area agree to apply its rules;
  • conservation and management measures are compatible on the high seas and the EEZs;
  • monitoring plans are put in place;
  • mandatory procedures are put in place for the amicable settlement of disputes.

At present the RFOs cover practically all the high seas. There are a wide variety of RFOs: some were set up under the FAO while others were created independently. Some cover all the biological resources in a given zone, others focus on one stock or a group of stocks. The area covered by an RFO may be limited to the high seas or to exclusive economic zones, or may include both.

Structure and activities of RFOs

As a rule, RFOs have an executive body, a scientific body, a secretariat and subsidiary bodies (finance committee, implementing committee and a statistical committee). These bodies are made up of representatives of the contracting parties meeting at least once each year in full session. They are assisted by working parties.

RFOs adopt decisions by consensus or by simple or qualified majority. The decisions may be technical measures *, total allowable catches or rules on the shareout of resources among the contracting parties.

Decisions are, as a rule, binding although the regulations often provide for a right of objection. To enforce decisions, the RFOs usually have management, inspection, control and surveillance systems.

In implementing the FAO Code of Conduct and the New York Agreement, RFOs are often required to interpret the legal issues involved.

In addition, although international law is based on the principle that no obligations may be imposed on non-contracting parties, RFOs often take measures against them, based on another principle of international law, i.e. the duty of cooperation, as allowed for under the Code of Conduct. The Code authorises the international community to deter activities undermining the effectiveness of measures taken by RFOs, even if they are carried out by non-contracting parties. To counter unfair competition from flags of convenience, contracting parties may:

  • prohibit access to their ports or the landing of unlawful catches;
  • impose trade sanctions;
  • extend jurisdiction to shipowners who are nationals of their country but who have switched their vessels to flags of other countries which are not members of the RFO.

The New York Agreement also stipulates that measures taken by RFOs can be applied to non-contracting parties that have ratified the Agreement.

Increased Community presence

As a major fishing power and one of the main world markets, the European Community has an interest in full involvement in RFOs, enabling it to:

  • take account of the interests of nations engaged in distant-water fishing;
  • ensure consistency between principles and policy in the various RFOs;
  • meet its commitment to sustainable resource management vis-à-vis countries with which the European Union has signed bilateral fisheries agreements.

Closer involvement in the work of a large number of RFOs will lead to:

  • a greater ability to represent the Community's interests. The Commission negotiates membership on behalf of the Community under Council negotiating directives and in consultation with a special committee. It is also responsible for honouring undertakings given to other contracting parties;
  • an increase in the Community budget allocated to RFOs. The contribution to the budgets varies with the size of the catch of the contracting parties and their economic status. In providing financial support, the Commission must ensure that the funds allocated are used properly;
  • an increase in the workload resulting from the Commission's participation in the RFOs' work. The Commission, where necessary accompanied on the spot by experts and scientists from the Member States, must represent the Community at the RFOs' full sessions (on the basis of Community positions drawn up by the Council) and in the work of subsidiary bodies and working groups and meetings of the RFOs' scientific advisers;
  • an increase in the number of recommendations to be transposed and incorporated. Transposition is required for two reasons. Firstly, clear obligations for Community fishermen must be laid down. Secondly, the responsibilities of the Member States and the Commission must be made clear. Transposition is subject to time constraints because the entry into force of a recommendation does not always coincide with the procedural deadlines for adoption by the Council;
  • more commitments to be met in applying conservation and management measures. The Commission ensures that the Member States apply the recommendations.

Task sharing between the Commission and the Member States

Given the budgetary and human resource constraints facing the Community institutions, the Commission is seeking to refocus on its primary tasks, as follows:

  • Representing the Community. This task may not be delegated to the Member States because it is the Commission's responsibility to represent the Community's position with one voice.
  • Simplifying the legislative process. The Commission proposes that the Council should give it the power to adopt regulations implementing final instruments already adopted. The Commission would notify these to the Community, which would retain its right to object.
  • Sharing responsibility for forwarding fisheries management data. The Commission proposes that the Member States send statistical data to the RFOs direct. On the other hand, administrative data should be sent to the Commission so that it can then forward them to the RFOs. Also, given that the Commission does not have enough scientific experts, the Member States' experts should take on some of the tasks involved in forwarding information, coordinating the scientific position adopted and representation.
  • The Member States' responsibility for direct control. For historical reasons, the Commission has taken on some of the control tasks in the Northwest Atlantic Fisheries Organization. However, it does not have the means to do the same in the other RFOs. As a result, a return should be made to sharing responsibility for controls as laid down in Regulation (EEC) No 2847/93 on the control system. The Member States must allocate the human, material and financial resources to ensure effective control of recommendations, while the Commission must concentrate again on its responsibility for supervising and coordinating the application of inspection and observer plans. It would then carry out direct control only in exceptional situations on the understanding that these tasks would be gradually taken over by the Member States.


At a time when the state of most fish stocks is alarming, the European Community, ranked fourth among the world's fisheries powers and one of the three major markets for fisheries products, should lend its full support to regional fisheries organisations. These organisations can be a major vehicle in ensuring consistency between conservation measures in the exclusive economic zones and on the high seas. The resource management systems which they put in place are based on scientific opinion and provide a stable regulatory framework with rules for both contracting and non-contracting parties. All the more reason for the Commission to draw attention to the workload that such support involves and the issue of sharing the tasks involved in participation in these organisations between the Member States and the Commission.

Key terms used in the act

  • Straddling stocks: fisheries resources that migrate between EEZs and the high seas.
  • Technical measures: measures laying down fishing techniques, including mesh size or minimum fish size.

See also

Additional information on the website of the Directorate-General for Fisheries and Maritime Affairs, see page on Regional Fisheries Organisations.

Last updated: 13.09.2006