Law of the Sea Symposium: Is there a major role for the law of responsibility in international fisheries management?

by Yoshinobu Takei

[Dr Yoshinobu Takei is a Research Associate at the Walther Schücking Institute for International Law, University of Kiel]

Cross-posted at SHARES Blog.

First of all, I wish to thank Opinio Juris and SHARES for inviting me to participate in this highly interesting symposium. In my post, I will analyze the relevance of the law of responsibility in a fisheries context, describe some of the recent developments in this field and highlight some points for discussion.

On 9 May 2013, a Taiwanese fishing boat was shot by a Philippine government vessel and the incident resulted in the death of a crew member onboard the fishing boat as well as serious damage to the boat. The Taiwanese government demanded the Philippine government “to respond to four demands: a formal apology; compensation; an expeditious investigation followed by the severe punishment of the perpetrators, and the speedy arrangement of negotiations on fishery matters” (Taiwanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs), although the Philippine government claimed that their law enforcement was obstructed by the attempted attack by the boat in question and they were therefore forced to open fire. This sad incident again testifies that state responsibility plays an important role in a fisheries context.

After several decades of uncertainty over the jurisdictional framework for marine capture fisheries, during which states focused on multilateral treaty negotiations rather than invoking state responsibility with a few notable exceptions such as the Fisheries Jurisdiction cases brought against Iceland before the International Court of Justice (ICJ), the issue of state responsibility has gained momentum in contemporary discussions on international fisheries management. In particular, with the increasing awareness of the importance of the conservation of fisheries resources as well as the protection of marine ecosystems, state responsibility has been invoked (1) in relation to coastal states which sought to prevent the adverse impacts on their fisheries resources of fishing activities by distant water fishing nations on the high seas adjacent to their maritime zones (see, e.g., the Fisheries Jurisdiction case (Spain v. Canada) at the ICJ and the Swordfish dispute between the European Community and Chile) and (2) in relation to a high seas fishing state by other members of a regional fisheries management organization (RFMO) (see, e.g., the Southern Bluefin Tuna case). Furthermore, without directly referring to state responsibility, some RFMOs have adopted sanctions against non-cooperating non-members whose fishing vessels were engaged in fishing activities which adversely affected the resources managed by these RFMOs. In other words, the invocation of state responsibility is on the rise in relation to fisheries and the way in which this is done is more diverse than before.

Nowadays, one of the most imminent threats to fisheries resources and marine ecosystems is illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing. To address IUU fishing, there have been a number of initiatives that target one or more states at the same time which do not fulfil their responsibilities under international law in relation to such fishing. In addition to RFMO actions against flag states mentioned above, there are three initiatives of note that involve state responsibility, explicitly or implicitly: unilateral actions, multilateral normative development at an international organization and advisory proceedings before an international tribunal.

First, the United States (US) and the European Union (EU) adopted new fisheries legislation, partly or exclusively, to address IUU fishing (see the US Magnuson-Stevens Reauthorization Act of 2006 (MSRA) and EU Council Regulation (EC) No. 1005/2008 on IUU fishing). The legislation provides for the identification of states whose vessels are engaged in IUU fishing, consultations with these states and, if their behaviour is not rectified, sanctions against them such as port access denial and importation restrictions. The EU Council Regulation and, to some extent, the MSRA cover fishing activities which do not necessarily relate to their coastal areas or fisheries resources therein and therefore they would deserve legal discussion on the extent to which they can adopt confrontational measures against identified states. In relation to the MSRA, the Secretary of Commerce identified a number of nations for their fishing vessels’ engagement in IUU fishing in reports submitted to Congress in 2009, 2011 and 2013; for the EU, the first decision of the European Commission for notifying third countries of possibly being identified as non-cooperating third countries was published in 2012. The consultations with nations identified by the US in 2009 and 2011 led to positive changes on the part of these states and, so far, no sanctions were triggered within the framework of this legislation (note, however, that the EU is threatening to adopt sanctions against the Faroe Islands on the basis of another Council Regulation on unsustainable fishing; see its press release). The EU Council Regulation is more ambitious than the MSRA in various respects: the scope of IUU fishing, the range of targeted states (not only flag states but also coastal states and port states) and the wide scope of potential sanctions. It remains to be seen how these two processes will be coordinated and will shape the global fight against IUU fishing together. On the one hand, there appears to be a synergy between these processes: the European Commission noted that it considered the reports by the US Secretary of Commerce in developing the above-mentioned decision; the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration amended relevant regulations with a view to addressing IUU fishing more comprehensively by identifying a nation based on the nation’s actions or inactions (similar to the EU Council Regulation). On the other hand, the identification processes by the US and the EU so far appears to have resulted in quite different outcomes: only one state (Panama) was identified by both processes.

Second, the work of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) has some relevance to state responsibility in the context of fisheries. It was engaged in the development of criteria for assessing flag state performance for several years, a work which culminated in the adoption of the Voluntary Guidelines for Flag State Performancethis February. Despite their name, the Guidelines aim to influence the behaviour of flag states and, to some extent, coastal states (via fisheries access agreements). While paragraph 47 on measures to be taken in the light of the result of an assessment does not add much to the existing range of possible measures, the criteria for assessing flag state performance undoubtedly contribute to the clarification of the content of the obligations assumed by flag states, which are arguably due diligence obligations more often than not.

Third, another development which may shed some light on the law of responsibility in a fisheries context is the recent request by the Sub-Regional Fisheries Commission (SRFC) for an advisory opinion of the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (see Kristen Boon’s posting here). In this request, an advisory opinion was sought to clarify the obligations and liability of flag states and international organizations as well as the rights and obligations of coastal states. The wording of the request of the Advisory Opinion is phrased in a general manner and the SRFC seems to seek clarifications on the rights and obligations created by global fisheries instruments, although it is clearly the IUU fishing activities taking place in the coastal areas covered by the SRFC in West Africa that prompted the members of the SRFC to bring this issue to the attention of the international community (see the SRFC’s Technical Note). It is interesting to see how the Tribunal addresses procedural and substantive issues associated with these proceedings and which entities participate in the proceedings and what implications they have for global fisheries governance.

Is there a major role for the law of responsibility in international fisheries management? Overall, there are various circumstances where the law of responsibility can play an increasingly important role in the context of fisheries. Not only the interests of an individual state, but also those of a group of states and collective interests of the international community as a whole are aimed to be protected in the above examples. The fora and ways in which state responsibility is invoked are expanding, as seen in recent trends in invoking state responsibility in regional fora and on the basis of domestic regulatory frameworks in relation to IUU fishing. But it remains to be seen to what extent these approaches will succeed in achieving their objectives in a coordinated and effective manner in the future.

http://opiniojuris.org/2013/05/29/law-of-the-sea-symposium-is-there-a-major-role-for-the-law-of-responsibility-in-international-fisheries-management/

2 Responses

  1. Yoshi – what primary obligations are RFMOs are bound by? For example, are there norms of customary international law involving conservation of scarce resources that might apply?  Similarly, do the Draft Articles on the Responsibility of IOs create obligations for RFMOs that they should be aware of?

  2. In my view, it would not be easy to apply the traditional elements for the formation of customary international law in order to identify the obligations of RFMOs in general, but at least we could see that some basic principles of a general nature also apply to RFMOs in addition to states: e.g., the requirement of consistency with the jurisdictional framework set by the LOSC and the duty to take necessary conservation measures. More importantly, perhaps, the “rules of the organization” (as defined by the ILC) of each RFMO, notably its constituent instrument and conservation and management measures, impose duties not only on its members but also on the RFMO as such, both procedural and substantive. These duties are primarily owed to member states but in some cases to wider categories of states such as cooperating non-members.
    ILC Articles on the Responsibility of IOs would be quite relevant to discussions on the responsibility of RFMOs and their members. Particularly relevant to RFMOs’ practice, in my view, are the provisions on the relationship between the acts of the organization and an internationally wrongful act committed by states (e.g., arts. 15-17) and conditions for recourse to countermeasures (art. 22). This may concern, for example, enforcement activities by member states against third state vessels on the basis of RFMO measures. Additionally, it is also noted that member states incur responsibility in connection with the acts of RFMOs (arts. 58-62). For example, states which create an RFMO and cause the latter to adopt measures not compatible with the jurisdictional framework under the LOSC would be held responsible if they intend to circumvent their obligations by so doing. 

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