Three Key Actions that FAO’s Committee on Fisheries Must Take for a Sustainable Ocean

COFI36 is set to tackle our ocean’s most pressing challenges — from IUU fishing to environmental degradation. But prompt action on greater transparency should be top priority.

Opening of the 35th Session of the Committee on Fisheries Meeting at FAO headquarters in Rome, Italy. © FAO/ Pier Paolo Cito

The fisheries and aquaculture sector is central to our planet’s economic and environmental wellbeing. More than 3 billion people today rely on seafood for their primary source of protein while the sector itself employs over 60 million people globally, fuelling the lives and livelihoods of fishing communities around the world.   

But our ocean is in trouble and so is its ecosystem. According to the 2024 State of the World Fisheries and Aquaculture report, released last month by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), fishery resources continue to face critical threats, ranging from climate change and pollution to habitat degradation, overfishing and poor management. 

Such urgent problems require urgent solutions. As decision makers descend on Rome, Italy, next week for the 36th session of the FAO’s Committee on Fisheries (COFI36), the intergovernmental forum can make decisive progress in charting a course towards more effective and sustainable ocean management for all. And while there will not be a shortage of global fishery challenges to discuss, there are three key actions COFI36 delegates must prioritize when it comes to bolstering global fisheries management:

Pursue a binding global agreement requiring the use of vessel tracking systems and sharing of position data 

The dearth of vessel tracking data is a key challenge in tackling illegal, unregulated and unreported (IUU) fishing, especially when it comes to foreign vessels operating within a given State's exclusive economic zone. It impedes government authorities from conducting effective monitoring, control and surveillance of their waters. And it creates room for unscrupulous operators to exploit gaps and loopholes in regulations and continue their activities undetected, often at the expense of coastal and port States.  


At Global Fishing Watch, we believe a set of new global binding measures requiring the tracking of all commercial vessels operating across the high seas can help States better understand potential encounters with foreign vessels. In addition, these measures can support a coastal State’s awareness of where fishing activity occurs in relation to sensitive or protected areas and also assist a port and flag State in building a picture of vessel history and determining whether or not to grant register a vessel.


That’s why delegates at this year’s COFI must take clear and determined steps towards achieving this goal. And they can start by securing funding for a global study on vessel tracking. To drive tangible change, this global study has to bebe robust. It must recognize transparency as a principle to good ocean governance. It must include an assessment of the benefits and opportunities of transparency, specifically on vessels fishing outside their own waters. It must also develop an analysis on the value of leveraging both automatic identification systems (AIS) and vessel monitoring systems (VMS) for fisheries management. And it must be inclusive, taking into account the needs and requirements of developing States while ensuring their participation in the process. 


Finally, there needs to be a clear set timeline. With the necessary support from delegates and non- State organizations, the global study can be initiated in time for the sub-committee on fisheries management in January 2025 with a view to presenting the final version at the 37th session of COFI in 2026.


Moving towards a global mandate for data sharing on vessels is critical to achieving better ocean governance. But delegates at COFI36 cannot stop there. 

Share beneficial ownership information through the FAO Global Record

Increased transparency of human activity at sea can boost accountability, drive better enforcement, and enable a diverse range of stakeholders to participate in decision making, management and monitoring. At the same time, it can ensure that nefarious actors are appropriately sanctioned for their transgressions. 


However, accountability for following national and international fisheries regulations lies not with individual vessels but their owners and operators. These beneficial owners are often impossible to identify, hidden behind layers of complicated, opaque corporate structures which allow them to evade sanctions for any illicit activities committed by their vessels. And yet governments and regulators do not always require the disclosure of beneficial ownership information despite the clear, tangible benefits that transparency can yield for global ocean governance. 


In March 2024, FAO Member States recommended that the FAO Secretariat study the feasibility and implications of sharing beneficial ownership information in the Global Record. That is why Global Fishing Watch also urges COFI36 delegates to take action on the sharing of beneficial ownership information by calling on the FAO Secretariat to proceed to study the issue and present a concrete outcome at the sub-committee on fisheries management in January 2025. 


Member States must underscore the importance of sharing information on beneficial ownership through the FAO Global Record and drive this agenda forward. This year’s meeting is a key opportunity to build momentum on this important issue. 

Enhance data transparency commitments

Global Fishing Watch creates, transforms and distributes data to increase the transparency of human activities in the global ocean. We also advocate and drive policy efforts that make human activity at sea more transparent and publicly accessible for all. 


That is because we know that transparency is at the heart of combating IUU fishing, ensuring sustainable fisheries and ocean management. We also know that transparency incentivizes compliance, offering a scalable and equitable approach to transforming ocean management. The transformative power of technology and open data lies in its ability to make information accessible and actionable to everyone.


But the key to unlocking this potential ultimately lies with governments, the FAO Member States. They are the data custodians.


COFI36 presents a pivotal opportunity for FAO Member States to honor their custodial duties and commit to recommendations that enhance data transparency, driving meaningful change and safeguarding our oceans. By promoting transparency, COFI36 delegates can openly commit to true global ocean governance, creating a foundation for sustainable and responsible fisheries practices worldwide.

Taking action for a sustainable ocean

The current state of our ocean highlights the urgent need for targeted policies rooted in transparency, enabling capacity development and driving the transfer of technology and responsible investments that support sustainable fisheries management where it is most critical.

At COFI36, Member States and the FAO have a golden opportunity to accelerate efforts to ensure transparency of human activities in our ocean and make good on their commitment to greater accountability, improved governance and the reduction of ecological threats. Only by taking prompt action now can we ensure an ocean future that is healthy, sustainable and resilient for all.  

Global Fishing Watch and our partners are ready to support efforts made by FAO and Member States in advancing conversations and actions around vessel tracking, beneficial ownership and data transparency.  

We’ll be in the room, ready to discuss and push for these critical changes. Together, we can make a significant impact and pave the way for a more transparent and sustainable ocean.

Paolo Domondon is the chief program and policy officer at Global Fishing Watch.

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