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History of the Northwest Atlantic Fishery

Recent History - Northwest Atlantic Fisheries Organization (NAFO)

Since 1979

  • The Birth of NAFO
  • The NAFO Convention
  • NAFO Subareas, Divisions and Subdivisions
  • Concluding thoughts

At the 26th Annual Meeting in June 1976, Canada and the USA announced their respective intents to extend their EEZs to 200 miles effective January 1, 1977 and March 1, 1977, respectively. The USA formally withdrew from the Commission on December 31, 1976. Declarations of the EEZs by Canada and the USA to 200 miles led to a decision by the ICNAF Contracting Parties to create a new arrangement for multinational fisheries management in the Northwest Atlantic. Also effective January 1, 1977, Denmark similarly extended to 200 miles its jurisdiction around Greenland as did France around the islands of St. Pierre et Miquelon.

In October 1976, ICNAF initiated discussions regarding future multilateral cooperation in fisheries in the Northwest Atlantic, and in December 1976 adopted amendments to the Convention to allow for the continued functioning of the Commission until a final decision could be made regarding a future arrangement. Discussions continued at several conferences convened by Canada in 1977 and 1978 until agreement was reached in 1978 on a new international organization to replace ICNAF.

From 1977 until end of 1979 ICNAF was formally dissolved although the Commission continued to manage fisheries in a somewhat abbreviated fashion. STACRES continued to provide advice for a reduced number of stocks (about 25 compared to around 70 previously) in response to Canadian requests for advice on certain stocks located within or partly within its 200-mile zone, to Danish requests for advice on several stocks in Greenland waters, to joint Canadian–Danish requests for several stocks overlapping the Canadian and Danish zones in Statistical Area 0 and Subarea 1, and to Commission requests for advice on several stocks lying totally outside any national zones. The Convention on Future Multilateral Cooperation in the Northwest Atlantic Fisheries resulted from several conferences held in Ottawa in 1977 and 1978 and came into effect on January 1, 1979. This Convention provided for the establishment of the Northwest Atlantic Fisheries Organization (NAFO). Following a 1-year transition between the two organizations, ICNAF was officially dissolved effective December 31, 1979.

The Inaugural Meeting of NAFO was held in March 1979 in Montreal and the 1st Annual Meeting in June 1979 in Halifax. At the beginning of 1980 when ICNAF dissolved, there were 13 Contracting Parties of NAFO: Bulgaria, Canada, Cuba, Denmark (in respect of the Faroe Islands), European Economic Community (EEC), GDR, Iceland, Japan, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania and USSR. In subsequent years, various countries joined and withdrew. Spain joined in 1983, but, together with Portugal, acceded to the EEC in 1987 and ceased membership in NAFO (subsequently being represented by the EEC). GDR withdrew in 1990 following reunification with the Federal Republic of Germany and was subsequently represented by the EEC. Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia became members of NAFO in 1992 (having previously been represented by the USSR) and the Republic of Korea joined in 1993. In 1994, the EEC formally changed its name to the European Union (EU). The USA became a member at the end of 1995, France (in respect of St. Pierre et Miquelon) in 1996 and the Ukraine in 1999. Romania withdrew in 2002 and Bulgaria in 2006.


One fundamental change from ICNAF was that the NAFO Convention organized it into three principal or constituent bodies: the General Council, the Fisheries Commission and the Scientific Council* and a Secretariat located in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, Canada. The General Council was the constituent body responsible for overseeing all organizational, administrative, financial and internal and external affairs of NAFO. The Fisheries Commission was the constituent body responsible for the management and conservation of the fishery resources in the Regulatory Area. These two bodies made a clear distinction between the coordinating and administrative functions, the conservation and management activities and from the scientific process within the Convention. This separation of the science and fisheries management functions was intended to facilitate the provisions in the Convention whereby Coastal States may request scientific advice, as this may be done without such matters being raised in the Fisheries Commission.

The Convention also included "consistency" provisions to address the relationship between the actions of the Fisheries Commission in the Regulatory Area and the management measures taken by Coastal States. Here the Fisheries Commission was required to "seek to ensure consistency between" its measures for stocks occurring both in the Regulatory Area and coastal fishing zones, with measures taken by the Coastal States concerned. This applied both to the direct effects of management proposals and to indirect effects that would result from inter-species relationships and other linkages.

On 28 September 2007, after a two-year process, NAFO adopted a document entitled "Amendment to the Convention on Future Multilateral Cooperation in the Northwest Atlantic Fisheries", constituting the first formal step towards a reformed Convention for NAFO. In 2008, the French version of the NAFO Convention was adopted paving the way for the ratification process. The adopted text has been ratified by at least three-fourths of the NAFO Contracting Parties to become legally binding. The complete process is described in Article XXI of the former NAFO Convention.

As we have now attained approval by three-fourths of all Contracting Parties, namely Canada, Cuba, Denmark (in respect of Faroe Islands and Greenland), European Union, France (in respect of St. Pierre et Miquelon), Iceland, Norway, Russian Federation and the USA) with no objections, the amendments to the Convention came into force as of 18 May, 2017.

*During the discussions and negotiations which led to the establishment of NAFO, consideration was briefly given to utilizing ICES as the source for scientific advice. ICES, as an intergovernmental scientific organization, had the advantage of a long-standing tradition of producing and disseminating scientific advice for fisheries management, possessed a current structure for such purposes – i.e. its Advisory Committee on Fishery Management (ACFM) – the majority of countries likely to become Contracting Parties of NAFO were also Contracting Parties of ICES, and the premiere fisheries scientists in the North Atlantic fishing nations were already or could become involved in the work of ICES and hence their collective expertise could be accessed in developing the scientific advice required as a basis for managing the fish stocks in the NAFO Regulatory Area. However, the negotiations rejected ICES as the source of scientific advice because the organization was perceived as being preoccupied with Northeast Atlantic matters and dominated by fisheries scientists from countries having distant water fleets in the Northwest Atlantic.

The new Convention Area was larger than that under ICNAF in that the Statistical Areas to the north and south were both incorporated as Subareas. The NAFO Convention applies to all waters of the Northwest Atlantic, including territorial waters. In addition to maintaining the geographical Subareas (1-5) that had been established by ICNAF, and adding the two Statistical Areas (0 and 6) as new Subareas. The portion of the Convention Area outside the Coastal State EEZs was termed the Regulatory Area in which the management and conservation measures decided within NAFO would apply. In Subarea 3, important fishing grounds on the Continental Shelf in the Regulatory Area included Flemish Cap and the eastern and southern edges of the Grand Bank commonly referred to as the "Nose" and "Tail" of the Bank respectively. These areas have proven to be the primary focus of NAFO's regulatory efforts.

Later changes in the boundaries between some Subareas, Divisions and Subdivisions were made by NAFO to coincide with boundaries between national EEZs. The boundary between Subareas 0 and 1 was modified in 1979. Effective 1987 the boundary between Subareas 4 and 5 was altered to reflect the 1984 decision by the International Court of Justice regarding the USA/Canada boundary in Subareas 4 and 5. As a result, catches in Subdivision 5Ze were subsequently reported as being from either the Canadian waters 5Zc or USA waters 5Zu.

ICNAF came into being at a time when the exploitation of the world's marine fisheries resources was escalating after the ravages of World War II. The Northwest Atlantic, with its long tradition of fishing by European nations, its highly productive fishing grounds, and relatively untapped resources, attracted a huge influx of modern fishing vessels from many nations.

For the first 20 years of its existence, ICNAF struggled with ineffective technical measures (mainly minimum mesh sizes) for regulating its fisheries, all based on an underlying philosophy of maintaining maximum sustainable. However, member country scientists soon implemented a comprehensive research program, developed the world’s foremost system for the collection and reporting of fisheries catch and biological data, and provided the scientific conscience to eventually place catch and effort controls.

ICNAF perhaps failed in not persuading its member countries to agree earlier on effective conservation measures for the stocks. In the eyes of Coastal State fishermen, ICNAF failed to protect them from the impacts of the distant water fleets. However, ICNAF's management schemes were innovative, and represented first-time multinational agreements on high-seas fishery regulations. ICNAF can proudly lay claim to a number of firsts among international fisheries commissions: establishing control of the overall level of exploitation, adopting TAC regulations, adopting national allocations of TACs, and attempting multispecies management. ICNAF enjoyed the participation of most of the world's best fisheries scientists.

As a multilateral fisheries conservation organization, NAFO has emulated its predecessor, but with a somewhat different structure. NAFO has additionally addressed new and different challenges, particularly the issues of non-member country fishing, unilateral establishment of quota allocations by Contracting Parties, and the exceeding of quota allocations by Contracting Parties.

The NAFO Scientific Council has distinguished itself particularly through its detailed and well documented evaluations of stock. But in addition it has maintained its high profile with sponsorship of annual Special Sessions, Symposia and Workshops which have focussed on scientific topics relevant not only to the Northwest Atlantic, but to fisheries science in general. NAFO, as an intergovernmental conservation organization, has demonstrated that in an era of extended national fishing zones and diminished international zones, multilateral scientific cooperation and management of shared fishery resources can not only be accomplished, but is a necessity.

Further reading:

L. S. Parsons and J. S. Beckett. 1998 The NAFO Model of International Collaborative Research, Mangement and Cooperation J.Northw.Atl.Fish.Sci., Vol.23:1-18 R.G.

Halliday and A.T. Pinhorn. 1990 Delimitation of Fishing Areas in the NW-Atlantic J.Northw.Atl.Fish.Sci., Vol.10:1-51

Categories: History

Historical photos

old ship

Photo of the "Matthew" sailing near North America Ref: Cabot's Discovery of North America, by G. E. Weare, 1897. 

cod and child

Photo showing child with two cod taken 1910 in Battle Harbour, Labrador. Ref: National Archives of Canada; Neg. No.: C76178


NAFO Perspectives booklet (pdf 4.7 MB)

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