Everyone has heard the jokes about lawyers and sharks. But this month, lawyers became fishâ€™s best friends.
In 2013, a West African fisheries commission asked the International Tribunal of the Law of the Sea for clarity on four questions. These questions focused on the responsibilities of states that license fishing vessels and the recourse available when a ship under a given countryâ€™s flag is caught engaging in illegal fishing.
The West African waters are traditionally very rich, and fisheries play an important role in supporting the food security and livelihoods of large and often poor coastal populations. But in recent years, reports about overfishing, displacement of local small-scale fishermen and illegal fishing have become common.
Illegal fishing is eroding efforts to sustainably manage fisheries and to set scientifically robust catch quotas. Agreements to allow access to the so-called surplus fish resources â€“ bought in cash by foreign fleets â€“ have not been set up to guarantee the sustainability of the resources nor to respect local livelihoods.
These problems were among the reasons the fisheries commission decided to ask the tribunal about the options to address illegal fishing and other problems of fisheries management in the region.
WWF decided to participate as a friend of the court and hired a couple of lawyers to help navigate the clauses and paragraphs. We gave input into the process, making a strong case for ensuring the rights and obligations of both coastal and flag states were addressed, with the goal of achieving sustainability.
In early April, the tribunal gave its answer. And it is good.
It ruled that a flag state must carry out due diligence to ensure a vessel under its flag is not engaging in illegal fishing. Failure to do so means the flag state can be held liable for the misconduct of the vessel. This means that the flag state may be taken to court and, if found in breach of its duty, forced to pay for the destruction of the fishery and the marine environment caused by the illegal activity.
It also stated that coastal states have a duty to cooperate to manage fish that swim between their waters, and to ensure that fisheries are managed sustainably before entering into any access agreement with a third party. This is important, as it is not currently the case in many places.
These and other important points are now extra ammunition for the fight to ensure sustainable fisheries â€“ and bring fish back to the people who most depend upon the sea for food and livelihoods.
Jessica Battle is Marine Manager for WWF International.Â