Can comms and advocacy help environment and economy? The live case of Accountability.Fish (Sponsored)

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ONE of the most important developments in recent years has been the extent to which public feedback is having much more direct impact on decision making – in both the public and private sectors – than it has ever had before, writes Mike Klein

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From citizen protests to the drive for greener products and services from the corporate world, citizens enabled by social media are making their demands known and impact felt by public and private decision makers on an ever increasing basis. 

Notably, that impact is being delivered by bypassing traditional lobbying, public relations and political decision making processes at least as much as it tries to influence those processes.  

This trend towards digitally facilitated citizen involvement is a hopeful sign, not only for society as a whole, but also for addressing a whole tier of issues which have largely been out of the public spotlight.

The Accountability.Fish effort aims to take advantage of this trend to drive accountability in international fisheries decision making. 

While it takes place well below the surface of the top public discussions about the economy and the environment, overfishing and the arcane and opaque process for decision making about global fisheries resources is nonetheless a vital global issue.

Stable fish stocks play a key role in the oceans’ ability to store carbon dioxide. And millions are dependent on commercial fishing, either for their livelihoods as fishers, canners, or distributors of the catch, or as consumers of a protein source that is preferred as healthier and more culturally acceptable than nearly all others. 

Overfishing represents a clear threat from both perspectives, and if current commercial fishing trends continue unabated, clear consequences on both fronts will be seen in the next few years.

Up until now, the decision making process for managing global fisheries resources has been handled largely behind closed doors by 17 largely independent international bodies known as Regional Fisheries Management Organizations (RFMOs), which have carved up jurisdiction over various types of commercial fishing taking place in international waters.

At this uber niche layer of international decision making, the participants in the RFMO process are rarely elected officials or diplomats, and are far more likely to be bureaucrats, many with long relationships with industrial fishing interests, and some who are likely to move from RFMO decision making positions to leading industry roles later in their careers. 

But the obscurity of RFMO decision making processes make them an interesting target for public mobilization and action for a number of reasons:

  • It’s a solvable issue
  • Increased visibility and accountability will reduce the maneuvering room bad actors currently have inside of a closed process, even if the process isn’t fully opened
  • It’s a clear “haves” versus “have nots” economic issue where perceptions around basic fairness will make it difficult to ignore public input
  • It’s an environmental issue where major improvements don’t require major changes in personal behavior or reductions in quality of life.

Key among these is the solvability of the issue. Overfishing is not a biochemical process.  It’s based on human decisions, and governed by a human led decision making process that acts in the interests of its most powerful stakeholders.  

Currently, the most powerful stakeholders are industrial fishing interests, aided by a governance structure that allows decisions to be made informally and in secret, where countries can opt out of decisions to a certain extent, and where participants have little visibility and no accountability to broader publics. 

But, even though the RFMO governance structure itself is unlikely to change in the short term, the belief is that increased accountability – and increased scrutiny – will make it more difficult for the bodies to continue to make blatantly one sided decisions.  

Partially, this is because such decisions would prove embarrassing to the more democratically oriented governments involved, say the European Union and, particularly, the Nordic countries.

It’s also because the underlying science is not demanding particularly draconian solutions comparable to the “stop flying and stop eating animal products” refrains coming from more extreme segments of the environmental movement.

Indeed, that science aims for fair solutions beneficial both for people and planet, allowing for target fish populations to grow as well as allowing the catch to be distributed more evenly.

The biggest question is how to harness and inject stakeholder impact into a process that isn’t designed for incorporating it.

Unlike traditional national political decision making processes, RFMO decision makers are not well known outside industry circles, and most RFMOs operate on consensus rather than open voting.  

That’s why Accountability.Fish is actively emphasizing accountability and open decision making – particularly in terms of making RFMO meetings and discussion processes follow common principles for allowing and facilitating equal input for all stakeholders, thus doing away with the embedded preferences that favor industrial fishing interests.

It’s also combining that focus with a targeted social media campaign to raise awareness of the economic and environmental impact of international fisheries and their associated governance processes – both to garner support for its own initiatives and to illustrate the power of public action to drive environmental and economic improvements without emphasizing painful quality-of-life reductions and major personal sacrifice. 

In so doing, it presents a powerful potential case study – a pure-play communication and advocacy effort to drive tangible economic and environmental impact, and one whose impact will be tangible, measurable, and, potentially, replicable. 


To support Accountability.Fish and its efforts to bring accountability to the murky world of international fisheries management, sign the Pledge here


Mike Klein is the communication lead for Accountability.Fish and is an independent social and internal communication consultant based in Reykjavik. Klein is the founder of #WeLeadComms, a program that recognizes initiative, leadership and courage among communication leaders, and is the former Europe-Middle East-North Africa regional chair of IABC.