Global approach to responsible fisheries

Celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, the international Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries continues to guide coherent, sustainable fisheries policy around the globe

By Rebecca Metzner and Jacqueline Alder, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations *

By the late 1980s, people the world over were aware that uncontrolled development and exploitation of fisheries resources was unsustainable and that action was needed.

Responding to this concern, the Committee on Fisheries (COFI) – part of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations – called for the development of new concepts that would lead to responsible, sustainable fisheries.

On 31 October 1995 the Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries (CCRF) was unanimously adopted by the FAO Conference Code, a text that:

  • establishes principles, in accordance with the relevant rules of international law, for responsible fishing and fisheries activities, taking into account all their relevant biological, technological, economic, social, environmental and commercial aspects;
  • establishes principles and criteria for the elaboration and implementation of national policies for responsible conservation of fisheries resources and fisheries management and development;
  • serves as an instrument of reference to help states to establish or to improve the legal and institutional framework required for the exercise of responsible fisheries and in the formulation and implementation of appropriate measures;
  • provides guidance that may be used where appropriate in the formulation and implementation of international agreements and other legal instruments, both binding and voluntary;
  • facilitates and promotes technical, financial and other cooperation in conservation of fisheries resources and fisheries management and development;
  • promotes the contribution of fisheries to food security and food quality, giving priority to the nutritional needs of local communities;
  • promotes protection of living aquatic resources and their environments and coastal areas;
  • promotes the trade of fish and fishery products in conformity with relevant international rules and avoiding the use of measures that constitute hidden barriers to such trade;
  • promotes research on fisheries as well as on associated ecosystems and relevant environmental factors; and
  • provides standards of conduct for all persons involved in the fisheries sector.

The FAO was a key player in the development of the Code of Conduct, but it is the FAO members, including Australia, which have a stake in fisheries and aquaculture and have adopted the Code that are the real owners.

The Code is used not only by the international community and nations, but also by businesses, fishers, processors, buyers and consumers – the general public – in their operations, activities and purchasing choices.

It is a voluntary instrument that has laid out the principles and standards that, 20 years on, are helping to ensure we are sustainably using our living aquatic resources.

In practice

Countries continue to align and refine their efforts to achieve environmental, social and economic sustainability in their fisheries sectors. Most countries have fisheries legislation compatible with the Code, and references to it are now included in many national fisheries policies.

The principles and standards described in the Code are lived every day in fishers’ and fish processors’ activities – in such areas as fishing operations, the handling of catches, the use of particular gear and post-harvest technologies – as well as in the day-to-day management of fisheries. Other parts of the private sector also use the Code to guide their operations and this is often reflected or included in various certification schemes, best-practice awards and advertising.

Further developments

The Code has also inspired and shaped subsequent international instruments and agreements, within and outside the fisheries sector, including:

  • Voluntary Guidelines on the Responsible Governance of Tenure of Land, Fisheries and Forests in the Context of National Food Security;
  • Voluntary Guidelines for Securing Sustainable Small-Scale Fisheries in the Context of Food Security and Poverty Eradication;
  • Principles for Responsible Investment in Agriculture and Food Systems; and
  • Guidelines for Ecolabelling of Fish and Fishery Products from Marine Capture Fisheries.

The FAO Fisheries and Aquaculture Department has also used the Code to continuously guide its work in helping countries improve their fisheries and aquaculture management.

Since 1995, the FAO’s work has included a considerable series of technical guidelines (TGs) and supporting supplementary information documents that provide in-depth information about specific aspects of topics covered in the Code.

The far-ranging topics include fishing operations (TG 1) to recreational fisheries (TG 13), from the precautionary approach (TG 2) and the integration of fisheries in coastal management (TG 3) to responsible international fish trade (TG 11) and increasing the contribution of small-scale fisheries to poverty alleviation and food security (TG 10).

During the past five years the FAO has increasingly emphasised on-the-ground assistance to bring the Code into the lives of fisheries stakeholders.

It has strengthened its interactions with the Global Environment Facility, the World Bank and other international development agencies, intergovernmental organisations and international financial institutions.

It is also increasing its partnerships with non-governmental organisations and community, Indigenous, women’s and industry groups active in the sector.

The result is that there are now specific initiatives about:

  • blue growth – to strengthen countries and the private sector in their sustainable production and consumption of aquatic resources while reducing poverty and securing food and decent employment for fishers and fish farmers;
  • coastal fisheries – to bring together countries, agencies and other partners at the forefront of efforts to improve coastal fisheries management and conserve marine biodiversity worldwide in a holistic and integrated way;
  • combating illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing – especially through the Agreement on Port State Measures to Prevent,

Deter and Eliminate IUU Fishing and the development of the Global Record of Fishing Vessels;

  • small-scale fisheries – and protecting the rights of small-scale fishers to have access to secure and just livelihoods through a Global Assistance Programme to help fisheries stakeholders around the world achieve the objectives of the small-scale fisheries guidelines;
  • tackling food loss and waste – and turning fish processing by-products into products that boost nutrients for otherwise nutritionally vulnerable populations;
  • supporting market access – so producers in developing countries become more competitive in international markets; and
  • ensuring sustainable aquaculture intensification – so that the sector develops in a sustainable way and that planning and policies adequately integrate economic, environmental, social and governance factors.

What’s next?

If we look at the changes in our capture fisheries, we see that their state is not declining as rapidly as previously and is even turning around in some cases.

Drivers of over-exploitation and ecosystem degradation are being addressed through the use of better fisheries governance. Fisheries management is increasingly working to deliver social and economic benefits‚ improve our food and nutrition security, and make fishing and coastal communities more resilient to climate change and natural disasters.

In short, as we look to the future, we see that we have a solid framework for continuing our efforts to responsibly enjoy our wonderful fisheries resources and to ensure that we have, indeed, “fish for the future”. 

General principles of the Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries

Noting that the right to fish carries with it the obligation to do so in a responsible manner to ensure effective conservation and management of living aquatic resources, the Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries calls for all to:

  • apply a precautionary approach;
  • address environmental, economic and social factors;
  • prevent overfishing and manage fishing capacity;
  • include fisheries in the multiple uses of the coastal zone and integrate them in coastal area management, planning and development;
  • have transparent decision-making processes;
  • consult and ensure effective participation of industry, fish workers, and environmental and other interested organisations in decision-making;
  • involve fishers and fish farmers in policy formulation and implementation;
  • minimise and reduce waste, bycatch and their impacts;
  • ensure safe, healthy and fair working and living conditions and meet internationally agreed standards;
  • protect the rights of fishers and fish workers, particularly those engaged in subsistence, small-scale and artisanal fisheries, to a secure and just livelihood, as well as preferential access, where appropriate, to traditional fishing grounds and resources in the waters under their national jurisdiction;
  • promote the maintenance of the quality, diversity and availability of fishery resources;
  • conserve more than target species;
  • rehabilitate populations;
  • use the best scientific evidence available and traditional knowledge;
  • use selective and environmentally safe fishing gear and practices;
  • conserve the population structure and aquatic ecosystems and protect fish quality;
  • maintain the nutritional value, quality and safety of the products;
  • protect and/or rehabilitate critical fisheries habitats and protection from significant impacts resulting from human activities;
  • undertake compliance and enforcement, including monitoring and control;
  • flag state responsibilities;
  • promote international engagement and cooperation in fisheries beyond national jurisdiction;
  • trade in accordance with the principles, rights and obligations established in the World Trade Organization agreement and others;
  • avoid creating barriers to international trade yet also avoid trade that has environmental degradation or negative social (including nutritional) effects; and
  • cooperate in order to prevent disputes.

In addition to this, states should:

  • promote awareness of responsible fisheries through education and training.

And aquaculture, including culture-based fisheries, should:

  • be used as a means to promote diversification of income and diet; and
  • use resources responsibly and minimise adverse environmental and local community impacts.

*Rebecca Metzner is chief of the Policy, Economics and Institutions Branch in the FAO’s Fisheries and Aquaculture Department. Jacqueline Alder is branch chief of the Product, Trade and Marketing Branch in the FAO’s Fisheries and Aquaculture Department.

More information

Rebecca Metzner,

Jacqueline Alder,