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The coasts of Africa are amongst the most bountiful in the world in terms of fisheries resources. The fisheries sector is vital for many coastal countries in Africa. It employs millions of people directly and indirectly all through the fisheries value chain, from fishers to fishmongers, fish processors, and fish exporters. Fish also contributes to supporting food and nutrition security and generates important revenues for coastal countries. Yet African marine fisheries are struggeling, for many reasons which include illegal fishing, overfishing, weak governance frameworks and corruption, to name just a few. This has placed increasing pressure on the continent’s marine resources. I saw some of the consequences with my own eyes, women fish smokers in Guinea not able to work due to the reduced quantities of fish brought back by fishers; or fishers in Mauritania, who must go increasingly further at sea to find fish.
It is not too late to reverse this worrying trend, and African countries are increasingly aware of the need to achieve sustainable and responsibly-managed fisheries. The Fisheries Transparency Initiative (FiTI) has the goal to support countries in Africa and all around the world to achieve this, by remedying what many international landmarks documents on fisheries reforms have pointed out as being a major obstacle to fisheries governance: the lack of credible information on the sector in the public domain.
The FiTI is a voluntary initiative, but there are many reasons why countries should join it.
Concrete transparency measures
Whilst transparency has often been pointed out as being an essential aspect of good fisheries management, there was never an agreement on what information should be made public. This has changed now. After two years of deliberation in a truly multi-stakeholder setting, the FiTI Standard now defines 12 transparency requirements on what information on fisheries should be published online by public authorities. They include, for instance, the status of fish stocks and marine ecosystems, conditions attached to fishing authorisations, the contracts of fishing access agreements signed between fishing nations and coastal states or the amount of fish taken from the ocean.
Through this, the FiTI Standard provides governments, the fishing industry (both large-scale and small-scale), and civil society with a comprehensive and credible way to achieve and maintain high levels of transparency on the management of the marine fisheries sector and the activities of fishers and fishing companies.
The 12 transparency requirements which are included in the FiTI Standard are applicable to all countries and consider the diverse needs of the different countries.
Progressive improvement of transparency
African countries should see the FiTI as an opportunity to develop and strengthen their own systems for collating and publishing information online in a complete and accessible manner, and this for all sectors, including for both large-scale and small-scale fisheries.
This is an opportunity because the FiTI does not expect all countries to have complete data for every transparency requirement from the beginning. Instead, public authorities must disclose the information they have, and where important gaps exist, they must demonstrate improvements over time. As such, engaging with the FiTI is not intended to be a burdensome and costly research activity. It has been designed to ensure that any country can implement it, including those where resources for collating information are limited.
This means that a country can become FiTI Compliant even if it does not have all the information from the beginning, as long as efforts are made to improve the availability and completeness of information overtime.
Enhancing trust amongst all relevant stakeholders over time
But the FiTI does not only be seen as an annual “stock-taking” exercise to check which information is available. The FiTI is also build on the paradigm that in order to achieve meaningful impact, the information must also be perceived as credible. And in many countries, current information is often seen as wrong or biased. Therefore, the FiTI is build on a clear multi-stakeholder paradigm. The formation of FiTI National Multi-Stakeholder Groups – consisting of representatives from government, business and organised civil society – in charge of implementing the FiTI process in their country is a unique occasion to foster trust and collective action in a sector where conflict amongst different stakeholder groups is often more the norm than cooperation. Indeed, those groups must work collectively to assess whether information in the public domain is perceived as accessible and complete and make recommendations on how to improve information published by national authorities.
Benefits for all stakeholders
By making fisheries management more transparent and inclusive, the FiTI yields benefits for all stakeholders. The public availability of credible information on fisheries will help tackle other issues which impact all actors in the fisheries sector, including contributing to food and nutrition security, supporting social stability and underpinning the sustainability of marine ecosystems.
More transparency and inclusiveness in fisheries will also support the fight against corruption and help measures to prevent and act against Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated fishing practices, which have reached enormous proportions in Africa.
Furthermore, countries implementing the FiTI will benefit from an enhanced political reputation for demonstrating a clear commitment to good governance and sustainable fisheries management. This can lead to increased trust and an improved contracting, trade and investment environment. Indeed, levels of accountability and openness can have a growing impact on the decisions of consumers and investors and it will become an ever-increasing factor for intergovernmental cooperation in trade and regional fisheries management.
There is a reason why the FiTI exists as such and is not an extension of the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI); it is because the fisheries sector has its own characteristics and actors, which are very different from those of the EITI. But the multi-stakeholder governance model of the FiTI was nevertheless very much inspired by the EITI, with its two pillars of transparency and participation. The strength of the FiTI lies in this powerful procedure of bringing together representatives of government, companies and civil society to one single table. I saw this again and again while being the founding chairman of the EITI. The simple act of talking helps different parties to overcome their mutual suspicions and to concentrate on the collective challenge at hand. How can we all contribute to improve the quality of public information? How do we ensure that we understand better each other’s concerns and expectations. In that regard, the lessons learnt from global transparency initiatives like the EITI have greatly inspired the vision of the FiTI.
The model of the EITI has also led us to reflect on what we want to achieve with the FiTI. It has been clear for us that a FiTI report, if replicating the model of EITI reports, might not have the expected impact. Indeed, it would be unlikely that the public would be able understand and use an exhaustive (and therefore lengthy) report if it is a mere compilation of fisheries technical information. Based on this, the FiTI International Advisory Group – the group of international exports who elaborated the FiTI Standard – decided that every transparency requirement should be accompanied by a summary on the findings of the report to make it more understandable and accessible to the wider public. The Group also decided that the FiTI would be more effective if it instead used the reports to assess the accessibility and completeness of information in the public domain for all transparency requirements set forth in the FiTI Standard. As such, the FiTI Reports would not duplicate already existing information, but rather highlight where information in the public domain needs to be improved, therefore rather using the FiTI as a mechanism to support countries in strengthening systems for collating and publishing information on fisheries online.
Now that the FiTI implementation process has started (beginning of implementation phase was marked by the 2nd International Conference of the FiTI, which was hosted by the Indonesian Government in Bali on April 27, 2017), we will continue to seek lessons learnt from other global transparency initiatives to maximise the impacts of the FiTI and ensure that we use all available experience to advance towards the goal of the FiTI.
Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated fishing practices are a major threat for African fisheries and a collective effort of all countries, in Africa and all around the world, is essential to address it effectively. The FiTI is not a silver bullet to address IUU fishing, but it will be a major tool to contribute to this fight by making some of the root causes visible and seeking to reduce the opacity which allows such practices to prosper. In the long term, the vision is that transparency will become the norm and create a global level playing field of transparency. The more countries participate, the more powerful the initiative will be.
It will be the responsibility of countries, businesses and of the civil society to demand more transparency from those who refuse it. It will also be their responsibility to ensure that information on fisheries management made publicly available is used to maintain or achieve robust governance and accountability in their fisheries sector, therefore closing the gaps which have enabled IUU offenders to act with impunity.