The General Fisheries Commission for the Mediterranean (GFCM) of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) is the competent regional body for fisheries management in the Mediterranean and the Black Sea. The term “fisheries management” is used here in the broadest sense since the overarching objective of the GFCM is the conservation and sustainable use, at the biological, social, economic and environmental level, of living marine resources, as well as the sustainable development of aquaculture. The GFCM is currently composed of 24 Contracting Parties (23 countries and the European Union) and 3 Cooperating non Contracting Parties (Bosnia and Herzegovina, Georgia and Ukraine), collectively referred to as CPCs.
Aquaculture is too important not to be sustainable
While production from capture fisheries in the GFCM area of application has ranged between 1.1 million tonnes in 1970 and almost 2 million tonnes in 1988, falling gradually again to just over 1.1 million tonnes in 2014, aquaculture production (including marine, brackish and freshwater environments) in Mediterranean and Black Sea bordering countries has shown, on the contrary, a steady trend of over 1.6 % a year, increasing from about 0.9 million tonnes in 1994 (worth 1.9 billion USD) to almost 2.4 million tonnes in 2014 (worth 6.8 billion USD).
The FAO estimates that globally aquaculture will remain one of the fastest-growing sectors for animal food production with output expected to expand at a rate of 3% per annum over the 2015–2025 period. In the Mediterranean and Black Sea countries, this would translate into a production of almost 3.3 million tonnes by 2025. However, when considering the national strategic plans implemented in the area, and especially the growth expectations, it is very likely that the regional production will largely exceed that figure, says Fabio Massa, GFCM senior aquaculture officer and backstopping officer for the GFCM Scientific Advisory Committee on Aquaculture (CAQ).
The expanding aquaculture industry in the Mediterranean and the Black Sea has contributed significantly to the supply of sustainable and healthy food fish, both within the region and outside, and has created direct and indirect employment opportunities, including in coastal communities where job opportunities are generally lacking. As the industry continues to flourish, concerns have been raised in terms of its sustainability. The aquaculture sector thus has a crucial economic and social importance in the region which is only likely to be strengthened over time; it is therefore in the interest of all stakeholders that the aquaculture be, and remain, sustainable.
The GFCM has a clear mandate to promote the sustainable development and responsible management of aquaculture, a task it has supported since 1995 through the CAQ, its scientific advisory body for aquaculture. The main areas covered by this committee address for instance issues connected to aquaculture governance, the promotion of marine spatial planning and allocated zones for aquaculture (AZA), environmental monitoring programmes for marine cage finfish farming, sustainable management of coastal lagoons and the development of sustainability indicators at the national and regional levels. The CAQ follows an ecosystem approach to aquaculture and is also promoting cooperation in the region through a series of projects.
The GFCM commitment
In 2013, the aquaculture multi-stakeholder platform (AMShP) was launched by the GFCM as a regional consultative body, following the positive results of participatory EU-funded aquaculture projects such as SHoCMed, InDAM, LaMed, MedAquaMarket and based on the fruitful discussions held within the AquaMed project. This regional platform includes researchers, NGOs, private industries, representatives from civil society, administrators, etc., and supports the CAQ’s advisory capacity in the GFCM by providing a forum where regional aquaculture stakeholders can share information and propose solutions to challenges facing the aquaculture industry.
In line with this work, the high-level Regional Conference “Blue Growth in the Mediterranean and the Black Sea: developing sustainable aquaculture for food security”, organized in 2014 by the GFCM, took stock of the progress made by aquaculture in the region and provided key elements to address priorities and transboundary challenges towards aquaculture sustainability. On the wake of the Conference, and within the remit of its mandate to promote the growth of responsible aquaculture, the GFCM commenced an internal reflection on how to facilitate this development process and address regional and local specificities. This led the Commission to agree, at its thirty-ninth session, on the establishment of the GFCM Aquaculture Task Force (ATF) in order to develop a “Strategy for the sustainable development of Mediterranean and Black Sea Aquaculture”.
The strategy on aquaculture aims at fulfilling multiple purposes that include ensuring the harmonised development of aquaculture activities within a blue growth perspective across the region, and further improving the CAQ’s ability to provide technical advice to the GFCM, says Abdellah Srour, Executive Secretary of the GFCM. The consultation process involves experts and national focal points appointed by eighteen contracting parties to the GFCM as well as by cooperating non-contracting parties; and the preparation of the strategy considers national aquaculture development plans and supra-national ones (e.g. EU), while relying on a participatory approach and creating the opportunity for concrete actions aiming at addressing common priorities, Mr Srour clarifies.
Several donors, including the European Union, have been supporting the work on the aquaculture strategy. Italy in particular has played a key role in supporting the establishment of the ATF. Riccardo Rigillo, Director General for Maritime Fisheries and Aquaculture at the Italian Ministry of Agricultural, Food, and Forestry Policies feels that cooperative models and regional activities are an essential part of the GFCM aquaculture strategy in order to ensure a more sustainable aquaculture in the region and guarantee employment and development.
Opening the debate on common issues and priorities
But what is exactly a task force in the GFCM context? According to Stefano Cataudella, GFCM Chairperson, the task force is essentially an instrument that allows members and cooperating countries of the GFCM to continue working during the intersessional periods on issues raised during GFCM annual sessions. It was in fact a task force that was used to reform the GFCM itself in 2011. Stefano Cataudella is the coordinator of the GFCM aquaculture task force, which is charged with identifying a common character of the region’s aquaculture sector. We need to put together the pieces of this mosaic, says Prof. Cataudella, the countries in the GFCM area of application share species, the environment, as well as markets, but they do not have the same legal framework. Indeed, what qualifies as safe and healthy production in one country, may not in another. With respect to the authority and the autonomy of each country we want to open the discussion.
The first meeting of the ATF, held in Naples, Italy, in May 2016, provided a starting point to define the basic elements for a regional strategy aquaculture. The documents produced, experts’ presentations and subsequent discussions provided a basis for a matrix containing the main axes that will represent the leading themes addressed by the strategy, i.e.: regulatory frameworks; healthy environment and health management; market for aquaculture products (including aspects related to the image of aquaculture). Once finalised, the GFCM strategy will be a detailed document including not only expected objectives and targets, but also outputs, management tools, indicators to monitor progress and a timeline with short, medium and long term activities.
Stakeholder platforms have a vital role
Houssam Hamza, vice-chairperson of the CAQ, from Tunisia, is also enthusiastic about the ATF. He emphasizes the role of the regional AMShP and of national stakeholder platforms as powerful knowledge tools helping feed the strategy in the consultative process.
In Tunisia, already back in 2011 a national multi-stakeholder platform was established, where representatives from research, farmers, fishermen, NGOs, civil society etc. could identify common issues and suggest amendments to national legislation. The initiative then spread to the local level so that potential investors in the sector had to submit their plans to the local multi-stakeholder platform as well as to the national one for them to be evaluated. Tunisia is not alone in this regard. Other countries in the region, including Algeria, Morocco, Lebanon and Egypt, all have similar fora where aquaculture issues can be discussed by different stakeholders. The experience with multi-stakeholder platforms at the national level in different countries convinced Mr Hamza of the need for such a body at the regional level too. This would serve two purposes, he reasons. It would enable new stakeholders to participate in the aquaculture development process, and it would be a quicker and more flexible tool than at disposal of the parties. By representing the entire region, the AMShP would also carry more weight in funding matters and be able to stake a legitimate claim to a greater share of the global funding that goes to the fisheries sector. Bringing aquaculture sceptics on-board will also improve the chances for dialogue and for getting opponents and proponents of the aquaculture sector to better understand the other’s perspective.
The presence of these different bodies within the GFCM, all essentially supporting the sustainable development of the aquaculture sector in the region, might appear to some to be the creation of a highly overlaid structure with unnecessary overlap between functions and areas of competency.
Fabio Massa recalls that aquaculture is a complex activity that encompasses social, economic and environmental dimensions as evident in the provisions of Art. 9 of the FAO Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries, which specifically addresses aquaculture development. The different bodies therefore have very different mandates and roles and reflect the exigency of a holistic and multi-disciplinary approach to sustainable aquaculture. Indeed, the CAQ provides technical advice for the work of the Commission, while the AMShP is a subsidiary body of the CAQ that reflects the different priorities of its members from a wider point of view. An illustration of the coordination among the different bodies and their respective fields can be found in the output of a meeting on shellfish aquaculture in the Mediterranean and the Black Sea held last year in Cattolica, Italy. The participants included national shellfish experts, administrators, researchers and representatives from industry and NGOs coming from 13 countries, who got together for the first time in order to review the recent progress made in shellfish aquaculture in the region and identify priorities. The stakeholders agreed on the identification of 75 specific indicators to monitor the sustainable development of mussel and oyster farming in the Mediterranean and the Black Sea; these results have been reported to the GFCM and now constitute a knowledge tool at disposal of the ATF when addressing issues related to shellfish farming in the region.
The strategy must evolve steadily
The consultative process among the main actors is well underway and the outcomes will be translated into an aquaculture strategy by the ATF. Once the strategy has been approved by the Commission, it will be adopted by the CPCs. This degree of discussion will naturally prolong the process and allow to obtain a strategy that is acceptable to, and implementable by, most if not all the countries in the region.
The political and economic complexity of the Mediterranean and the Black Sea region means that countries are at different stages of preparedness to implement the strategy and finding a shared character of the aquaculture sector in a region as complex as the Mediterranean and the Black Sea is therefore an ambitious task. However, bringing together the different stakeholders and fostering an exchange of ideas and experiences is already a useful outcome and an important step towards the objective to be met. Agreeing on a viable strategy for the sustainable development of aquaculture in the region that would be governed by a framework of harmonised rules would be the icing on the cake. That, as Prof. Cataudella is aware, will be sometime in the distant future. “We are still only at the beginning of the process,” he says.