New study in Marine Policy looks at non-state actors’ role and influence in regional fisheries management organization (RFMO). Authors use tuna RFMOs as a case study. Photo: A. Maslennikov/Azote

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Making waves in global fisheries governance

New study reveals what roles non-state actors play in tuna regional fisheries management organizations

Story highlights

  • Study in Marine Policy examines non-state actors’ (NSA) participation in regional fisheries management organizations (RFMO)
  • Study uses tuna RFMOs as a case study, and examines NSA participation from 2004-2011
  • Results reveal that industry is the most influential NSA in these tuna RFMOs, whereas civil society organizations representing the public interest tend to be on the periphery

There are lots of different fish swimming in the global fisheries governance sea. They get to decide who fishes what, how much and where. Nation states that are members of regional fisheries management organizations (RFMOs), for instance, hold the decision-making power to set binding measures, such as quota and effort limitations, for highly migratory and straddling fish stocks, the most famous of which are tunas and their close relatives.

Then there are also non-state actors (NSAs) that participate and try to shape RFMOs processes. These actors includes civil society organizations (CSOs), that are non-profit advocacy groups representing the public interest, but also industry actors that are for-profit and represent private interests, as well as consultancies and private research organizations. While we know that NSAs have the potential to influence outcomes of global fisheries governance, we do not know who are the biggest fish in the governance sea, and to what extent and how they impact governance processes over time.

A recent Marine Policy study by centre PhD student Matilda Petersson, centre researchers Andrew Merrie and Henrik Österblom, and Lisa Dellmuth from the Department of Economic History and International Relations at Stockholm University, looks at the role of NSAs when it comes to participation in global fisheries institutions. In this specific case, they look at the five RFMOs that are responsible for governing tuna stocks.

The representation of non-state actors is especially important to consider in a time of ever-greater openness of global environmental institutions and increasing demands for fair representation of people affected by global environmental policy

Matilda Petersson, lead author

Link to article

Proportion, diversity, and volatility

To understand NSA dynamics in this context, the authors draw on a population ecology approach. The assumption is that organizations cannot develop the resources they need to survive in a competitive environment alone, and therefore they must cooperate to be able to exchange resources and survive.

As applied to NSAs this means that:

(1) NSAs at the global level operate in an “institutional environment with limited material resource, ideas, and expertise,” all the while seeking resources to survive.

(2) Global fisheries institutions are resource-dependent. State actors want information from NSAs, and in turn NSAs want funds and access that state actors hold.

In this competitive environment, the authors use three focal points from population ecology to examine trend in NSA participation: proportion, diversity, and volatility. Proportion looks at how many state actors and NSA were involved in the process, and what role NSAs played. Diversity depicts representation of different actors involved, and their roles. Volatility shows how easy or hard it is for an NSA to enter/exit a policy arena.

Departing from this perspective, the authors look at patterns and trends in NSA participation in the tuna governance sea over time. Furthermore, Merrie points out that, “Compared to previous studies of individual NSAs or advocacy campaigns in global fisheries governance, this study adopts a comparative perspective on NSA populations participating in different RFMOs. It explores the patterns of NSA populations participating in RFMOs across institutions, different types of actors, countries, and over time.”

Only some non-state actors are truly in the tuna governance sea

When it comes to proportion, the authors found that in RFMO meetings, NSAs made up 30-60% of the total actor participation. In some of the RFMOs, participation by NSAs was stable over time, while in others it fluctuated, suggesting that there is no link between increased participation and access to NSAs in the tuna RFMOs. The authors also found that industry representatives are more numerous that other NSAs. Industry representatives also tend to have more extensive access, such as being included in member state delegations, and are better positioned to influence policy outcomes. CSOs on the other hand, are much fewer in number and tend to be on the periphery, participating as observers.

In examining the diversity of NSAs in RFMOs, the authors found that increased access does not necessarily mean increased diversity. In addition to discovering that industry has more access to RFMOs, the authors also found that the NSAs come predominately from high-income countries.

Österblom highlights, “Poor representation may lead to policy decisions at the expense of 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 of developing coastal states, such as those in the Pacific Ocean region.”

Finally, the authors found extensive volatility of NSAs across the RFMOs. More specifically, they found that industry NSAs tended to be more consistent in their role and presence at RFMOs, again demonstrating their advantage when it comes to influencing the tuna policy-making. CSOs, on the other hand, were rarely represented on a repeat basis, thus limiting their ability to influence policy-making.

While CSOs appear to be the smallest fish in tuna governance, the authors did find some evidence that they are starting to make waves. However, Petersson emphasises that overall, “These findings demonstrate considerable variation in non-state actor participation and access. This indicates that industry representatives generally have greater opportunities to influence RFMO policy-making compared to civil society organizations.”


To understand how NSAs participate in tuna RFMOs, the authors used a mixed method approach. They examined the structure of NSA groups in five different RFMOs, by looking at 553 NSAs from 70 countries that participated in 39 official commission meetings between 2004 and 2011. The authors examined the role of each NSA in the meeting, such as part of the state actor delegation or observer, and examined the trends of each NSAs participation.

The authors also conducted eight in-depth interviews to better understand NSA participation with individuals who had attended at least 10 RFMO meetings during that time period. Interviewees selected had varying interests in tuna fisheries.

Link to article

Published: 2019-04-12

Related info

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 to publication

Matilda Petersson is a PhD candidate researching the role and impact of non-state actors, including both representatives from global civil society and the private sector within global fisheries governance. More specifically, Petersson examines conditions under which non-state actors may contribute to more effective governance of shared fish stocks in the high seas.

Andrew Merrie is a research liaison officer at the centre. He works primarily under the marine system dynamics theme and is focused on establishing and managing relationships with collaborating partners and funders and coordinate relevant research.

Henrik Österblom is a professor and deputy science director at Stockholm Resilience Centre. His work focuses on ocean stewardship, global cooperation and marine ecosystems.


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