Regional Fisheries Management Organisations


Regional Fisheries Management Organisations (RFMOs) are multilateral agreements that govern the extraction of marine resources, mostly in ocean basins. There are five tuna RFMOs, four dealing with multi-species tuna fisheries in the Indian, Atlantic and Pacific Oceans and one dealing with the Southern Bluefin Tuna:

  • CCSBT - Convention for the Conservation of Southern Bluefin Tuna
  • IATTC - Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission
  • ICCAT - International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas
  • IOTC - Indian Ocean Tuna Commission
  • WCPFC - Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission

A sixth major RFMO-type institution is CCAMLR (Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources), which manages much more than just fisheries, and is strictly not an RFMO, but BirdLife treats it as such for practical purposes. CCAMLR deals exclusively with Southern Ocean/Antarctic waters.

The longline fishing that all of these 6 RFMOs control accounts for >90% of all longline effort each year. For a full description of the problems with longline fishing and seabirds, see the ATF page. The GSP has long recognized that strengthening the functioning of RFMOs, and ensuring that they have good seabird conservation measures enforced, is the most effective way of ensuring global protection for seabirds from the threats of lethal interactions with fishing gear. Our work takes the data, experimental results and lessons learned from the ATF work and presents these to the IOTC and ICCAT. Ross Wanless is responsible for the GSP's engagement with both these commissions, and contributes to the GSP's work in other RFMOs.

A success story

An example of the successful involvement of Ross and the team at BirdLife International comes from the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission (IOTC). In 2012, the Commission passed a resolution that dramatically strengthened requirements for tuna longliners operating in areas south of 25°S, where high densities of albatrosses and other threatened seabirds occur. The new measure specified three options for longliners to use, all with scientifically proven benefits to reducing incidental seabird deaths. Those measures are: setting lines at night when albatrosses cannot easily see the baited hooks, using a bird-scaring device (known as a tori line), and adding weights close to the hook to ensure that lines quickly sink out of birds’ reach. At the time of this agreement, the Republic of Korea expressed concerns about the practicality of implementing some of the measures. Fortunately Dr Ross Wanless (GSP coordinator for Africa and Seabird Division manager at BirdLife South Africa) convinced officials that we could assist. Through previous at-sea research conducted by the Albatross Task Force (ATF), we know that the safety and economics of adding weights to lines can be dealt with satisfactorily. 

Weighting longline hooks no burden for South Korea

The ‘Tragedy of the Commons’ was first advanced as a concept by the economist Grant Hardin. It describes how short-term, selfish interests, which trump long-term, communal interests when exploiting a common resource, lead to overexploitation. The high seas and Antarctica are the last global commons that contain exploitable mineral and biological resources. The rules that govern activities (particularly extractive ones such as mining) are very strong in Antarctica. The same is not true of the oceans. There are rules, mostly housed within ‘Regional Fisheries Management Organisations’, such as the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission (IOTC). But enforcement of the rules is exceedingly difficult to achieve. Albatrosses are the most highly threatened group of birds on earth. Longline fishing plays a large role in that situation. The battle to overcome alarmingly high mortality from albatrosses and petrels in high seas tuna longlining, forms a major component of the Marine Programme of BirdLife International.

The approach to IOTC and similar bodies has built off the work and scientific achievements of BirdLife’s Albatross Task Force (ATF). First the ATF teams have demonstrated, through scientific experiments onboard commercial fishing vessels during production fishing, that seabirds can be protected from the fishing hooks, safely and cost-effectively. Those results are then translated into new rules at these international commissions. In theory, once the rules have been agreed upon, everyone will follow them or face the consequences. However, detecting non-compliance is almost impossible, but pales to insignificance when compared with the task of getting sanctions against fishing nations which don’t follow the rules. BirdLife’s approach to this is to work with fishing vessels and responsible nations like Korea, to convince fishermen that there is a better way, and not to make the rules and then look for a stick to beat nations into compliance.

In 2013 the Republic of Korea became the first Asian fishing nation to invite a non-governmental organisation onboard a tuna longliner. Dr Zang Geun Kim brokered an agreement with Sajo Industries and BirdLife International, who undertook research to see if Korean-style tuna longline fishing could adopt new technology that is safe, and helps minimise the risk to seabirds. The system, developed by BirdLife and a UK company Fishtek, is designed to sink baited hooks fast, so that seabirds have little chance to snatch the bait and get hooked. The trials went well, and the Korean fleet has decided to take the next step and roll out the system across all the vessels that operate in the southern Indian Ocean. The Korean government supports the industry’s decision. “Korea agreed to follow the rules of the IOTC seabird measure. We will continue to work with fishermen and organisations such as BirdLife International to ensure that the new system works well,” said the Korean authority.

BirdLife South Africa’s Dr Ross Wanless has been at the centre of a deal with South Korea’s tuna fleet to move towards more seabird-friendly fishing gear. In late-February, the fishing association from Korea chose to refit their fleet with 40 000 specially designed weights, for the sake of preventing accidental seabird deaths during tuna fishing operations.

“The magnitude of this decision from Korea should not be underestimated,” said Dr Ross Wanless, Seabird Conservation Programme Manager for BirdLife South Africa. “For the entire fleet to resolve to adapt their fishing gear for the sake of seabirds was almost unthinkable just a few years ago. It’s a really impressive step for Korea to become a responsible fishing nation,” continued Dr Wanless.

“The commitment from all parties to understand, test, refine and commit to solutions that will reduce seabird bycatch is highly commendable. Hopefully this marks the beginning of a new chapter for seabird interactions with tuna longliners,” said Dr David Wilson, Science Coordinator and Deputy Secretary of the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission.

For more information, please contact Dr Ross Wanless on