Written by Nereus Fellow Matilda Petersson,

Regional Fisheries Management Organizations (RFMOs) are the sole organizations with a mandate to adopt binding measures on highly migratory and straddling fish stocks. The most famous of these species are tunas and their close relatives, and these are managed through five specialized organizations, the tuna RFMOs.

Enabling sustainable management of global tuna stocks is critically important. Today, as much as 30% of the major commercial tuna stocks are considered to be overfished. From an ecological perspective, tunas are important as they perform key functions in many marine ecosystems as top predators. Tunas also have a high socio-economic value. They sustain some of the world’s largest industrial fishing fleets, and generate government revenues from access fees important to many developing coastal states. Tunas also sustain large artisanal fleets, providing livelihood opportunities and contributing to food security in many coastal communities around the world.

Importantly, member states of tuna RFMO collectively decide who gets to fish what, how much and where. Not all nation-states are member of these RFMOs, but rather these organizations are made up of countries that either have a fishing interest in the species or the geographical area (often referred to as distant water fishing nations) or a coastline near the geographical area managed by RFMO (referred to as coastal states). As a general rule, RFMO decisions are taken by consensus, which in practice can lead to delays in decision-making and postponement of more contentious issues, with implications for the ability of RFMOs to effectively manage these fish stocks.

In addition to the members of RFMOs, there are also a large number of non-state actors participating at RFMOs’ meetings and trying to shape their decision-making processes. These actors include civil society organizations that are non-profit and pursue public interests, as well as industry actors that are for-profit and pursue private interests of their members, but also representatives from private research institutes and consultancies that focus on marine and fisheries issues. We also know from previous research that these non-state actors can be influential international negotiators. Therefore, it is important to consider what the patterns of participation and representation of different non-state actor interests actually look like.

If we dive into the sea of the five tuna RFMOs and look at the participation and representation of non-state actors at their Commission meeting, which are the decision-making bodies of RFMO, some interesting patterns can be identified (see recent publication, Petersson et al 2019 for more details).

First of all, non-state actors represent a significant part of the participation at these meeting, making up between 30-60% of the total actor participation. Secondly, industry actors (representing fishing companies or fishing associations) are more numerous than any other non-state actor. Industry representatives also tend to have more extensive access, because they are generally included in member state delegations, and participate with continuity over time. Civil society organizations on the other hand, are much fewer in number and tend to participate as observers, and with less continuity over time. Taken together, this indicates that industry actors are better positioned than civil society organizations to influence policy outcomes because they able to build close and longstanding relationships with policymakers. At the same time, while civil society organizations are not many in terms of numbers, these actors are increasingly viewed as visible and influential by participants in RFMO meetings.

Finally, another interesting pattern can be identified by looking at the country of origin for the participating non-state actors. Here it is very clear that non-state actors predominately come from high-income countries. Even though several tuna RFMOs have low income and lower middle-income countries as members, non-state actor participation from these countries is very limited in the RFMOs. The lack of representation from non-state actors may lead to unfavorable policy decisions for developing countries, for example in terms of the distribution of benefits from tuna fishing. This bias is critically important as some of the world’s richest tuna waters lie within the exclusive economic zones (EEZs) of developing coastal states, such as those in the Pacific Ocean region.

The demonstrated patterns in participation of non-state actors has implications for the opportunities of different actors to influence RFMO policy processes. Examining the representation of non-state actors in international organizations like the RFMOs is also important in a time of ever-greater openness to these actors across international organizations and policy areas, and as demand for fair representation of people affected by global environmental policy continues to increase.


Petersson, M.T., Dellmuth, L.M., Merrie, A. and Österblom, H., (2019). Patterns and trends in non-state actor participation in regional fisheries management organizations. Marine Policy, 104, pp.146-156 link

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