The Indian Ocean Tuna Commission (IOTC) is one of the five tuna Regional Fisheries Management Organizations (RFMOs) established under the framework of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and its implementing agreement—The United Nations Agreement for the Implementation of the Provisions of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea of 10 December 1982 relating to the Conservation and Management of Straddling Fish Stocks and Highly Migratory Fish Stocks (UNFSA). These legal instruments have various provisions to guide RFMOs in sustaining institutional credibility, stability, and legitimacy in their decision-making processes. While RFMOs have the right to rule on the management of the stocks, external perceptions of legitimacy and credibility matter to ensure the stability of the institution [1
]. The mechanisms to achieve stability are based on the reliability, sufficiency, and confidence of its member state decision-making processes [2
]. Multilateral institutions will only thrive if they are viewed as legitimate by the general public, which is in part linked to the need for credible decisions only attainable when RFMO delegates have sufficient knowledge to interpret and validate scientific and technical information [3
]. Furthermore, fair and equitable decision-making among other elements such as enforcement, compliance, adaptivity, membership, and transparency are certain elements for any RFMO to perform effectively.
One of the most fundamental decisions to be made for natural resource governance is how resources are allocated among individuals [4
]. The success of an allocation process has the potential to permeate almost all other decisions taken by RFMO members and thus has the potential to either secure or to undermine the credibility and legitimacy linked with the realization of the conservation and management mandate [5
]. However, regulating highly migratory species such as tuna, one of the most tradable fish in the world, is a contentious issue, mainly due to economic, institutional, and political factors, including competition in trade [6
]; the transboundary nature of tuna stocks and their presence, both in coastal waters and in areas beyond national jurisdiction [7
]; species distribution; gear complexities [7
]; scientific uncertainties; and geopolitics [9
]. Additionally, due to their economic and employment significance and importance to food security [10
], members protect their own economic and political interests within a scientific framework during negotiations in RFMOs [6
]. These differences are compounded with the complexity and ambiguity of international legal instruments with regards to sovereignty over tuna resources. Together, these complexities create a fundamental barrier in the negotiations for a systematic allocation model by all the RFMOs [12
], and the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission (IOTC) is no exception.
The IOTC was established in 1993 as an Article 14 body of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) Constitution (under the provisions of Article XIV of the FAO Constitution, the FAO Council may approve and submit to Member Nations agreements concerning questions relating to food and agriculture which are of particular interest to Member Nations of geographical areas specified in such agreements). For the eyes of FAO, IOTC is another project administered by FAO. IOTC is the only tuna RFMO to be under the framework of FAO and covers ocean space from eastern South Africa to eastern Australia and Indonesia. FAO was instrumental in the development of IOTC, and article 14 was the most favorable mechanism to retain IOTC within the FAO framework at that time. Currently, there are 31 member states in the IOTC, 22 of which are coastal states (i.e., countries whose waters are found within the convention area). Unlike in the other oceans in the world where industrial operations dominate, artisanal fisheries take a greater proportion of the tuna catch in the Indian Ocean [13
], and there is huge variation among the benefits that the coastal states accrue from tuna resources. From 2014 to 2018, around 94% of the catch of the three tropical tuna species (skipjack tuna, yellowfin tuna, and bigeye tuna) in the Indian Ocean was caught by 11 members of the 31 with IOTC membership (the European Union is a member of the IOTC. Under EU membership, France, Italy, Portugal, Spain, the United Kingdom, and Mayotte vessels fish in the Indian Ocean). In the spirit of promoting “optimum utilization”, under Article 62 of UNCLOS, some coastal states have permitted other states to fish for the resources within their Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) through fishing access agreements, mainly due to a lack of domestic fishing capacity. For example, the European Union (EU) has tuna access agreements with Madagascar, Seychelles, and Mauritius in the Indian Ocean [14
]. The European Commission also allows the tuna processed in these countries to be imported into Europe tax-free. In addition, Japan, China, and South Korea also have access agreements, but these agreements are not publicly available [15
]. Furthermore, the canneries in the Indian Ocean also process and add value to the catch. Thailand, Indonesia, Iran, Oman, Seychelles, Mauritius, Maldives, and Madagascar all have canneries that process skipjack and yellowfin tuna. Besides canning, the major fishing nations in the Indian Ocean also export their fish to the sashimi market in Japan and to fresh and frozen tuna markets in the EU and the USA. At the same time, some of the countries in the Indian Ocean rely heavily on tuna species for local consumption. For example, Maldivians consume on average 163 kg of pelagic fish per year [16
], about eight times the global average. Countries that catch the majority of tuna in the Indian Ocean are also large consumers of pelagic fish and are above the global average of 6.9 kg per capita per year [16
]. Finally, the entire EEZ and coastal waters of the British Indian Ocean Territory is declared a Marine Protected Area [17
], suggesting that conservation and not consumption is also a priority for some members.
Like other tuna RFMOs [12
], the IOTC has been working on developing an allocation framework. These discussions on allocating fishing opportunities (i.e., typically a proportion of the total allowable catch in a given year) to IOTC member countries started in response to the organizations’ first performance review [18
]. The process was later formalized through Resolution 10/01 after the scientific committee recommended taking decisive steps to reduce the overexploitation of yellowfin tuna and bigeye tuna in 2010 (Resolution 10/01). Since then, the negotiations have progressed both in the Technical Committee on Allocation Criteria (TCAC) and in the commission. The TCAC was established to solely discuss the technicalities of the allocation process, but a considerable time of the commission plenary has also been devoted to discussing the matter in length over the last decade. However, the negotiations have been slow to progress, with a substantiable divide between member states [19
]. While these negotiations continue, tuna stocks continue to be heavily fished. Since 2014, yellowfin tuna is considered biologically overfished, with overfishing occurring; in 2019, bigeye tuna and albacore were both considered overfished; and skipjack tuna was fished by more than 30% of the harvest control limit in 2018 [20
]. As fishing pressure remains high and stocks are not being given a chance to rebuild, the calls to reach an allocation agreement as soon as possible have gained traction [21
]. So, how can the tension between the institution’s own calls for an agreement with a lack of practical progress towards cooperation be explained?
Lodge et al. [5
] highlighted that the main difficulties RFMOs encounter in allocation mechanisms are (i) the inability to agree on a total allowable catch because of the concomitant limits it would impose on their national fleets, (ii) an inability to accommodate new members with an interest in fishing within allocation regimes, and (iii) non-compliance with national allocations owning to perceived inequalities. While all of these challenges are true for tuna RFMOs, here we explore the history of the allocation process at the IOTC and identify the additional barriers that have impeded consensus in the context of a fishery that is worth more than 4.76 billion US dollars [24
]. Our contribution is two-fold: we first provide a brief overview of the IOTC allocation process to date, and subsequently expand on the current limitations affecting progress. Understanding these barriers is critical in creating an effective allocation process not only in theory but in practice, and one that will help to contribute to the legitimacy, credibility, and thus stability of the RFMO.
To develop this paper, the authors attended IOTC meetings as a country delegate (2017–2019, first author) and Non-governmental Organization observer (2018, second author). In the case of the first author, TCAC meetings were also attended from 2018 and 2019. During the 2018 IOTC meeting, the authors kept notes and had daily debriefings to discuss the progress and process. Specifically, the interventions made by member states in the IOTC’s TCAC and commission meetings in 2018 and 2019 were observed in order to identify and categorize the barriers to decision-making. These were than correlated with the findings from the IOTC’s performance review and the reports of the IOTC commission and subsidiary bodies. The barriers that were identified were then grouped based on their commonalities.
2. Allocation Negotiations in the IOTC
When formal allocation negotiations began in 2010, there were five distinct proposals by Indonesia, Seychelles, European Union, Iran, and the Republic of Korea. Japan and Sri Lanka also submitted proposals in the earlier meetings [25
]. Focused discussions on establishing guiding principles and criteria that would govern a quota allocation system occurred in the first three TCAC meetings. At the outset of the allocation negotiations, the proposals and subsequent negotiations were focused on establishing a systematic (formulae-based) allocation system. A group of like-minded coastal states grouped under the tag of G16 (named after Article XVI of the IOTC agreement, acknowledging the sovereign rights of coastal states over the living resources in their EEZs) proposed a list of criteria, as did the EU and France Overseas Territories (France OT) (Table 1
). After five meetings of TCAC in over 10 years, two proposals still remain on the negotiation table—one from the Maldives with support from 10 other members, and a proposal from the European Union [26
]. The Maldivian delegation tabled their proposal in 2017, 2018, and in 2019 in the commission to expedite the process. However, there has still been little progress made, and tensions in reaching an agreement remain.
While there is noticeable agreement on some of the principles and systematic approaches (Table 1
), significant differences still remain between the two proposals. One of the critical issues that has persisted for the last 10 years of the negotiations has been the attribution of historical catches in the EEZs of the coastal states by foreign-flagged vessels [19
]. Based on interventions made in the IOTC plenary, coastal states maintain their position that the fish caught in their waters should be attributed as part of their historical catch, irrespective of the flag state that caught the fish. These coastal states consistently stated that they will not compromise on that matter. However, the EU, Japan, Korea, and China also consistently argued in the IOTC plenary that the historical catches should be attributed based on the flag state, as it was paid for and fished by their fishing vessels. In the spirit of compromise, in the 2018 TCAC meeting the Distant Water Fishing Nations (DWFN)s offered a 10% attribution of catches made in the coastal waters to the coastal states. However, the proposal has been firmly rejected by the coastal states in the last two TCAC meetings and subsequent commission meetings.
For many states, the different principles articulated in the two proposals remain abstract in terms of their practical implication for catches and the attending benefits that the catch brings. In 2019, as discussed and agreed upon at the 2018 meeting, a consultant was hired to develop allocation simulations to provide catch estimates under the two different allocation proposals. However, the negotiations still remain tense and inconclusive, even though countries now have a tangible potential catch allocation to work with. The tensions and the divisions in allocation negotiations have spilled over into other discussions in the commission and vice versa, and it therefore remains important to identify and suggest ways around the key institutional, political, and scientific barriers limiting cooperation.
For a multilateral organization such as the IOTC to govern effectively, the organization needs to be legitimate, credible, and stable. To succeed, the organization need not only fulfill its mandate under the convention or the agreement or other international laws, but must also fulfill the expectations and perceptions of the players involved in the decision-making processes of RFMOs. As shown in Figure 2
, critical elements for the performance of an RFMO are a fair and equitable decision-making process, compliance, monitoring, control and surveillance, capacity to adapt (for example, to climate change, among other dynamic processes), memberships, the ability to include the aspirations of developing coastal states, transparency, allocation, and harvest strategies for species under the mandate of the commission [5
]. However, in the case of IOTC, we have identified institutional, political, and scientific barriers that have impeded allocation negotiations (Figure 2
). The issues identified in the paper raise questions about the future of the organization, including its credibility, stability, and legitimacy.
Cooperation on allocations is contingent on ensuring that no one is worse off in acting cooperatively than in acting individually [5
] and avoiding conflict and uncertainty while maintaining fairness throughout the process [4
]. However, this has proven difficult, as states have diverse fishery management objectives and are at different levels of fleet development and subsidization, especially in the IOTC. The relationship between the FAO and IOTC needs to be resolved to bring stability to the organization. The FAO played a crucial role in establishing the IOTC and facilitating the evolution of the organization. However, the IOTC has matured over the years, and there is no clear need for the FAO’s direct involvement, as evident from their engagement in the IOTC internal processes over the last few years. The other four tuna RFMOs are independent but maintain a healthy relationship with FAO [32
]. In fact, the FAO is often represented in the commission meetings of all the RFMOs as an observer, and contributes to capacity development programs through various projects run by these organizations. Cognizant of this difference, the FAO could take a leadership role in providing the required autonomy to the member states. The FAO could facilitate the process of transferring the organization to an independent body similar to all the other tuna RFMOs. If the IOTC is independent, the member states have the opportunity to operate similar to all the other tuna RFMOs, responsible only for the member states, including reporting, compliance, and financial and human resource management. Moreover, this could pave the way for a negotiation of a new agreement with modern fishery management concepts and addressing the membership of Taiwan. One of the newest RFMOs—the Southern Indian Ocean Fisheries Agreement (SIOFA), established in 2012—addressed the issue by including a provision in the main text of the treaty to allow the participation of fishing entities in subsidiary bodies and decision making [64
]. Furthermore, this could also resolve the issues surrounding sovereignty and disputed territories, as discussed above. As the FAO lies within the UN system, the disputes over sovereignty continue to rear their ugly heads at the IOTC. On the contrary, countries which have lobbied in the UN system over the disputed territories might block the removal of the IOTC from the FAO system.
Subsequently, if the IOTC remains a “project” of FAO, there needs to be a more cohesive working relationship between the two organizations that addresses the concerns of both the parties in a timely manner. Given the sensitivities in international diplomacy around the issue of Taiwan [64
], it would be a challenge to resolve the matter within the FAO system. This might also mean that one of the important fishing members in IOTC will not be involved in the negotiations nor its inclusion in the allocation table. Furthermore, the strained relationship with FAO has also blocked the progress in modernizing the agreement, as highlighted in the second performance review. Modernizing the agreement could open up the discussion on reducing the time gap between data submission, stock assessment, and decision-making. As illustrated, the time from data submission to decision-making in the IOTC is the longest in all the tuna RFMOs, and is already impacting the decision-making process. Tuna, being a highly migratory stock fished across many member countries with diverse fishing capacities, requires stock management decisions to be made in a timely manner.
However, member states opt for the lowest common denominator or delay the adoption of management measures, questioning the reliability of data. Data deficiency is not unique to the IOTC, but it is more challenging, mainly due to the high proportion of artisanal fisheries catches. From 2014–2018, artisanal fishing vessels caught around 48% of the total tropical tuna catch (skipjack tuna, yellowfin tuna, and bigeye tuna) [65
]. In 2018, in the WCPFC, which manages the largest tropical tuna catches in the world, artisanal gears caught around of 14% of the tropical tuna catch [66
]. Due to the characteristics of artisanal fisheries, it can be more difficult to monitor these catches compared to those of industrial vessels. The conventional stock assessments are usually based on costly and data-intensive methodologies, which are often inadequate to be implemented in small-scale or artisanal fisheries [67
]. Furthermore, the industrial fishing vessels are also not immune from data issues. In 2019, the scientific committee revised the data reported by Spain for stock assessments, citing that the data submitted was implausible [20
]. The IOTC needs to strengthen data reporting and invest in monitoring programs to assist coastal countries in developing capacity to collect data from artisanal fisheries. In fact, the IOTC has a meeting participation fund to facilitate developing coastal countries to participate in scientific and commission meetings. However, a broader capacity building fund could be established to develop the capacity of artisanal fishery data collection, such as the one developed in ICCAT.
The divide between coastal states and DWFNs and the adoption of conservation and management measures to satisfy the lowest common position, compounded with issues in implementation compliance and the enforcement of conservation and management measures, continue to plague the IOTC. If the IOTC intends to move forward with developing and operationalizing the allocation process, the negotiations have to move from the 5-day sitting of 32 member countries to bilateral and multilateral negotiations. As historical catch constitutes a huge proportion of the allocation proposals on the negotiation table, countries who have the financial capacity to continue to increase their fishing capacity and catch landings will continue to benefit from the current systems. Countries who have these capacities often use delaying tactics until there is a necessity (increase costs, reduced stock levels) to adopt a measure [68