A journey where international policies are born

By Dyhia Belhabib

Where are international policies designed? How is an international policy born? What is the level of discussion that is required to adopt a policy?

 I am in Rome as I write this story, attending the Committee on Fisheries, or #COFI32 at the headquarters of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.


                                            Nicola Smith (Bahamas delegation) and myself taking some rest at the atrium of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization building.

It is my second time at COFI. And this time, we had a side event organized by FAO and co-sponsored by The Bahamas and The Gambia. Given the particular relationship of the Sea Around Us (www.seaaroundus.org) with FAO, it was an excellent occasion for debunking what makes our relationship so particular and more constraining for collaborations.

FAO strives for reliable catch statistics and they help countries in their data collection, building capacity and offering low cost alternatives to allow them to get out of the data poor situation. Now, FAO relies heavily on statistics provided by countries and although –at least officially– processes with which data are collected are verified, in many cases, data are established based on ad- hoc meetings. Sometimes, some catch data are assumed to be non-existent. As this constrains FAO, the Sea Around Us with its catch reconstruction approach goes beyond this and uses reasonable methods (that hide behind the controversial brand of “catch reconstructions”) to move beyond the « Zero ».

FAO kindly organized the side event, and I had the pleasure to meet Marc Taconet, Lucas Garibaldi and the new addition to the team, Manuel Barange. I had the feeling that there were misconceptions regarding the methods that are used, driven by the global paper by Pauly and Zeller, which let’s face it does not inform policy, despite being a holistic summary of a huge amount of work that involved hundreds of people. I noticed that it created more confusion with regards to the brand within FAO and other partner countries.

Criticism regarding the assumption that all the work was done from Canada was only justified by a lack of research from those who raised the question. The Sea Around Us worked with over 400 co-authors from 200 countries. My work requires me to spend 50% of my time working on active engagement with our partners in West Africa. The very diversity of the panel, i.e. participation from The Gambia, and the Bahamas talking about catch reconstructions was very informative by itself.

I presented on catch reconstruction results and implications with a few examples from Africa [download presentation here].

After a discussion with Marc Taconet, it appeared that the confusion was fading away. I explained that we use classic methods in many instances to “reconstruct” catch data, and gave the example of The Gambia where we merely multiply a fishing effort by a typical catch assessed for that kind of effort. The Gambia is re-assessing its artisanal fisheries using the catch reconstruction method to submit these new data, corrected backwards to the FAO. This further invited a conversation about separating two completely different sectors “artisanal” and “industrial”, which led to a meeting with Marc Taconet and his team on fishing effort. The conversation has started and I will follow up on this. Maybe one day, regional fisheries bodies will be able to access official data separated by sector, helping to inform policy. I am at least hopeful that we will be able to actively collaborate with FAO in the near future. After all, we strive for the same goals.

I realize that I really appreciate working on engagement and policy beyond the mere academic research that I also do.

Both The Gambia and The Bahamas will be following up by submitting data resulting from catch reconstructions as part of their next data submission to FAO, a huge step for the countries and for the Sea Around Us. The Bahamas further stated the importance of including these data as an alternative to nothing in their data reporting scheme, on the main floor of COFI [see below].

I was very happy to meet behind the scenes with different country delegations and to talk about how they can introduce/support policy recommendations at COFI. At a certain point one of my “assignments” was to talk some delegations into supporting another delegation’s statement regarding regulating transhipments, or at least, introducing the idea at COFI. Speaking with the Senegalese delegation and a lead for the Caribbean countries delegation revealed fruitful as both supported the statement, which means it will be formally considered at COFI.

I also organized a meeting with the head of the Senegalese department of surveillance which led to formal discussions on how they could be helped in combatting illegal fishing. One of the main outcomes of the meeting was to find out where Gotland, a fishing vessel spotted fishing illegally in Senegal, was, and making recommendations on how to make the culprit pay its fine. The government of Senegal had already written to the Spanish government to which the vessel was licensed, but their response was vague. Working with Mark Powell from Vulcan, Gotland was spotted in Las Palmas… I followed up, kind of playing the bridge, with the Senegalese department of surveillance, which prompt them to writing officially a quick letter to the Spanish government. From my understanding, the next step will escalate matters if the vessel owner does not respond.


                Gotland, found in Las Palmas (Spain) after it escaped from Senegalese authorities, who observed the vessel fishing illegally in Senegalese waters south of the Mauritanian border

One thing that I will never forget is the panel of experts for the side event of the Fisheries Transparency Initiative: Oceana siting right next to the head of the Association of Russian ship-owners in West Africa.


All committed to transparency, with a clear question: ”How committed?”.

We could not know the answer from Guinea, whose red card was just lifted according to my sources (and now officially), as the Fisheries Minister could not make it to the side event. The question does not usually ask itself for NGOs, particularly not Oceana, not for Indonesia, as they are in the middle of blowing up all that moves without an authorization in their waters, a bold but effective move towards ending illegal fishing. The concern I had related to the commitment of a fleet that was constantly accused of bending the rules, fishing illegally and corrupting the corrupted in the region. One thing that the representative of the association told me was that he asked the Minister in Senegal who arrested the Oleg a few years ago to keep it quite from the media… Which is understandable, but how transparent??

Although I deplored the fact that some countries chose to ignore the big elephants in the room, particularly Thailand who chose to state that “they are committed” to sustainable fisheries, and ignore the big issue relating to labour abuses, some countries made significant progress in at least admitting shortcomings, which I should say is a huge step forward… Kind of the first step in an AA meeting!

For example Cote d’Ivoire:







The Bahamas talked about how much money is going to fighting illegal fishing:








… and how they were going to incorporate catch reconstruction data in their official statistics







Port state measures ratifiers were recognized during COFI32, and because of them the Port State Measures Agreement #PSMA came into force! I must stress that the Guinean President Alfa Conde was officially declared “champion”.














Chile’s Minister of Fisheries was very vocal on the need for other countries to step up and that Chile had measures that were more severe than the PSMA of the FAO








As another Fisheries Minister (St Vincent and the Grenadines) was talking about IUU fishing in the Caribbean, he called for more ratification of the PSMA. At least 30% of the fish that is taken from the region is caught illegally.








The plague does not stop in the Caribbean…


Indonesia surely raised some of the main issues that take us back to transparency…








And just as pride takes place during the meeting: PSMA becomes a reason for pride…






Other countries supported PSMA as an effective way to stopping fish caught illegally from reaching markets, as stated by the EU.









One major lesson for me: “I can influence policy, as an individual, as a scientist, as an advocate, and as a colleague of hundreds of other that are at the front lines of policy making”. I certainly was impressed and inspired by the efforts of the Pew team, at all levels!


Download the presentation here:







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