Women’s participation and representation in Regional Fisheries Management Organizations (RFMOs) – Where are they and the data?

Women’s participation and representation in Regional Fisheries Management Organizations (RFMOs)Where are they and the data?

RFMOs are Regional Fisheries Management Organizations. There are different definitions of what can be included in the group of RFMOs, but the very basic features are the fact that they have the competence under international law to adopt legally binding decisions on the management of resources in fisheries, and that they have competence on areas which include parts of the high seas.[1] The 1995 United Nations Fish Stocks Agreement (UNFSA) is the fundamental global treaty for RFMOs and it encourages states to become members of RFMOs.[2] They are nowadays the hidden but most important organizations that handle management of marine resources hence their decisions impact essential ecosystems and millions of livelihoods.

RFMOs can be divided into three different groups based on the type of fisheries that they manage.

  1. General RFMOs are usually those that have mandate to manage most fisheries which are present in their area of competence. They manage different types of fishing activities, and these fisheries use many different types of fishing gears. At the world level, there are several RFMOs which cover geographically almost all the high seas where there are significant fisheries.
  2. Tuna RFMOs have been established because species like tuna have very specific characteristics, for example, being highly migratory species, they require organization which cover larger areas. It should be underlined that these RFMOs do not cover specifically only tuna fisheries, but also tuna-like species and highly migratory fish stocks.
  3. Finally, specialized RFMOs are similar to tuna RFMOs in that they have narrower mandate over specific types of fisheries and species, which are specifically expressed in their mandate.

An issue: the lack of sex-disaggregated data

A review of the RFMOs has been conducted to assess the role and the participation of women in these important organizations in the fishing industry. The review had the aim to analyze the extent of women’s participation in high-level positions in such fundamental organizations for fisheries resources management. What principally emerged is a lack of information and data that make it difficult to assess the role and participation of women. For almost all RFMOs analyzed, data was missing in at least some of the entries considered, and for others it was impossible to retrieve any kind of number on employees and hence to disaggregate them by sex.

The review focused on counting the number of staff working in RFMOs bodies. Usually, the structure of these organizations is similar, and it includes a council or commission, a set of sub-committees usually scientific, working on specific topics, and a secretariat focused on human resources and technical management. The review revealed that most RFMOs do not have open information on the number or names of their staff, as well as sex-disaggregated data, and if they do, it is usually not available for all the bodies.

13 RFMOs out of the 40 analyzed did not have any data available on their staff on their websites (32,5%), in fact, for 2 of these a website was not found.

A learning: far from parity for decision-making and leadership positions

What emerged from the available data found on the RFMOs websites is that women have still a limited presence in high-level fora, and this is especially true for higher positions such as heads of commissions/councils, heads of sub-committees and heads of secretariats. Indeed, the total percentage of women as heads in any of these bodies was found to be 28%, which is still very low if compared to the actual presence and percentage of women working in fisheries and aquaculture in the different steps of the value chains. In particular, women’s percentage as heads of the commissions is 14%, for heads of the scientific committees is 28% and for the secretariats it is slightly higher: 42%.

Women’s presence in general in RFMOs was found to be 33% of total staff, which is not a big improvement from the presence of women as heads of the different bodies. The percentages of women as staff in the different bodies are divided: 33% in commissions; 27% in scientific committees and 46% in secretariats. The slightly higher presence of women in secretariats both as heads and as normal staff can be attributed to the fact that administrative and human resources jobs are usually held more by women. Once again, this shows an under-representation of women in management bodies and the difficulty that women encounter in accessing decision-making processes and give their contributions. The same discouraging situation has been found in another WSI research also in private seafood companies, where top leadership positions are usually held by men, and only 3% of CEOs of seafood companies are women.

This is a missed opportunity for RFMOs and in general for organizations that have an important role in making decisions on the management of natural resources, because it has been shown by several research and studies that involving women in these processes can result in better resource governance and conservation outcomes[3]. Furthermore, decisions made at the level of these fora and organizations will certainly have an impact on the lives of all people involved, and this includes women working in the sector, hence it is necessary to consider also their points of view and necessities by involving them in decision-making processes. An example is the “catch share programs” which divide the “total allowable catch” of a determined species into smaller allocations then distributed to the participants in that fishery. This operation is done at RFMOs level, and even though there are studies documenting how this operation may affect the targeted communities, little is known about how this affects women’s roles and participation in the industry.[4]

Including more women in high-level bodies and resource management organizations means acknowledging their role in the fisheries and aquaculture industry and recognizing that their contribution is fundamental. Yet, to date, most interventions in favor of women working in the fishing industry have taken the form of post-harvest and household support activities and interventions, reinforcing the already present gendered division of labor. In order to create a really gender equitable industry, increased contribution of women to policy dialogues and increased involvement in decision-making regarding resource management are needed.[5] 

WSI can only hope this review will be a wake-up call for all RFMOs to be more transparent about the composition of their staff and to make this information easily retrievable and accessible to anyone from their websites as well as to implement more inclusive and gender equality policies. This is necessary because only by knowing the current presence of women in these organizations it is possible to think of change towards having a more gender balanced representation in these bodies.

Maria Grazia Cantarella

[1] Ásmundsson, S., Regional Fisheries Management Organisations (RFMOs): Who are they, what is their geographic coverage on the high seas and which ones should be considered as General RFMOs, Tuna RFMOs and Specialised RFMOs?. https://www.cbd.int/doc/meetings/mar/soiom-2016-01/other/soiom-2016-01-fao-19-en.pdf  

[2] Terje Løbach, T., Petersson, M., Haberkon, E. and Mannini, P. 2020. Regional fisheries management organizations and advisory bodies. Activities and developments, 2000–2017. FAO Fisheries and Aquaculture Technical Paper No. 651. Rome, FAO. https://doi.org/10.4060/ca7843en

[3] Leisher, C., Temsah, G., Booker, F. et al. Does the gender composition of forest and fishery management groups affect resource governance and conservation outcomes? A systematic map. Environ Evid 5, 6 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1186/s13750-016-0057-8

[4] Calhoun, S., Conway, F., Russell, S., Acknowledging the voice of women: implications for fisheries management and policy, Marine Policy, Volume 74, 2016, Pages 292-299, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.marpol.2016.04.033

[5] Lentisco, A., Lee, R., Beyond fish processors and caregivers: women as primary, secondary and tertiary fish users. Asian Fisheries Science Special Issue 27S (2014): 33-42 https://www.academia.edu/11778607/Beyond_Fish_Processors_and_Caregivers_Women_as_Primary_Secondary_and_Tertiary_Fish_Users