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ICNAF Documents and Publications

Link here to access the numerous ICNAF documents and publications.

ICNAF Docs. & Pubs.


First Meeting of ICNAF in 1951

International Commission for the Northwest Atlantic Fisheries (ICNAF)


The International Commission for the Northwest Atlantic (ICNAF) was among the first regional fisheries management body to be established in the world (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.) and was considered to have played a leading role in the assessment and management of fish stocks outside of national jurisdictions.

Despite ICNAF’s lead role and innovations in the formulation of fishery management techniques, an overwhelming expansion of long distance fleets in the 1950s and 1960s had a profound and lasting effect on the fishery resources in the northwest Atlantic. An extensive learning curve in understanding status and effects of exploitation on the fish populations, and limits on controls that could be imposed in international waters, diminished the effectiveness of ICNAF.

See below for more information on ICNAF in the drop down menus. A reference list is available as well.

A pdf is available here (952 kb)

History of ICNAF

History of Northwest Atlantic Fisheries - ICNAF years

International Commission for the Northwest Atlantic Fisheries (ICNAF)

1949 to 1978

An early meeting of ICNAF held at Woods Hole.

The first regulatory convention that pertained to the North Atlantic was the 1943 Draft Convention relating to the Policing of Fisheries and Measures for the Protection of Immature Fish (Halliday and Pinhorn 1996, Sen 1997). However, Canada and USA shared doubts that North American interests would be well served by a North Atlantic-wide organization dominated by European states. That convention never came into force in the northwest Atlantic.

Subsequent discussions that took place at ICES and at the Overfishing Convention of 1946 (the follow-up to the 1943 Convention) dealt only with the eastern Atlantic although problems of over-exploitation Atlantic wide were recognized. At the suggestion of the USA, a separate conference was convened in Washington, DC on Jan. 26-Feb. 8 1949. It was attended by eleven countries with interests in fisheries off the east coast of North America. Delegations comprising fishery administrators, scientists and industry representatives from Canada, Denmark, France, Iceland, Italy, Newfoundland, Norway, Portugal, Spain, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the United States of America participated in the International Northwest Atlantic Fisheries Conference. The FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations) and ICES (International Council for the Exploration of the Sea) attended as observers.

It was well understood the difficulty of the task at hand when it was stated in the report of the conference that: “The need for thorough consideration of the problems facing the Commission is paramount, and considerable time will be needed for assembling the material required for a determination of those problems”.

However, the primary purpose of that 1949 conference was to formulate a Convention (international treaty) pertaining to management of the fisheries of the Northwest Atlantic outside the territorial seas of the Coastal States, west of 42º W longitude, between 39º W and 78º 10'N latitude. The key outcome and the Final Act of the conference was the publication of a Fisheries Treaty known as the International Convention for the Northwest Atlantic Fisheries.

International Commission for the Northwest Atlantic Fisheries (ICNAF): 1949 to 1978 

The first meeting of the ICNAF was held in April 1951 in Washington, DC and was attended by five signatory governments (Canada, Denmark, Iceland, UK and USA), five additional countries whose ratifications were pending (France, Italy, Norway, Portugal and Spain) and two observer organizations, United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES).

ICNAF established Standing Committees on 1) Finance and Administration (STACFAD) and 2) Research and Statistics (STACRES) and Regulatory Measures (STACREM), to attend to all matters pertaining to the Convention. The ICNAF Convention did not establish an organizational structure for scientific matters, although ICNAF was charged with being responsible in the field of scientific investigation for obtaining and collating the information necessary for maintaining those stocks of fish that support international fisheries in the Convention Area. However, STACRES quickly became the focus for scientific endeavor. The research in itself was undertaken by agencies of the Contracting Parties, with the scientists bringing the results of their research to meetings where they were peer reviewed by international colleagues. The scientific peer review process became much more organized as mathematical procedures became more widely used to assess the status of fish stocks and the number of stocks being managed increased. An early function of STACRES of ICNAF addressed the fundamental question of fisheries and biological data. STACRES developed specifications for the nature of the data to be collected, how to store it and how to disseminate it.

The Convention Area was initially the area west of 42W longitude and north of 39N latitude and was divided into five Subareas (1–5). The southern boundary was then extended to 35N latitude to define Statistical Area 6. Statistical Area 0 was created later.

When the ICNAF Convention entered into force in 1950, the Commission was given the mandate "to make possible the maintenance of a maximum sustained catch from the (ICNAF) fisheries". This maximum was not defined. The most common interpretation was that the objective was to obtain maximum yield in weight of fish, separately from each stock of fish.

The early ICNAF regulations was charged originally with the "investigation, protection and conservation of the fisheries". in order to make possible the maintenance of the maximum sustained catch.". Proposals to do this were to be made on the basis of scientific investigations. This concept of maximum sustained catch was later modified to allow for "joint action to achieve the optimum utilization", with proposals to achieve this made "on the basis of scientific investigations and economic and technical considerations". This was changed, which came into effect at the end of 1971, brought a very important recognition that there were benefits to be gained from not harvesting to the maximum sustainable level.

The Convention established a Panel for each Subarea responsible for keeping under review the fisheries and the associated scientific and other information and, on the basis of scientific investigations, making recommendations to the Commission for adoption (e.g. regulatory measures, scientific studies and investigations) by Contracting Parties. Panel membership by Contracting Parties was contingent upon having current substantial exploitation in the Subarea in question or having a coastline adjacent to the Subarea. The Commission through its strong scientific presence adopted numerous regulatory measures, including many innovations that have been applied in international fisheries globally.

The end of ICNAF – effect of introduction of the 200 mile limit and transition of responsibilities to NAFO

The most significant development in international fisheries occurred in the mid-1970s; extension of national jurisdictions to 200 miles. However, in the ICNAF Convention area, there existed a portion of the fishable continental shelf on the Grand Bank and Flemish Cap that extended beyond 200 miles. As such, it was recognized that ICNAF could no longer function in its current state but that an international fisheries management body was required to manage the resources that extended beyond the new 200 mile territories.

In 1976, ICNAF initiated discussions regarding future multilat­eral cooperation in fisheries in the Northwest Atlantic. New multilateral arrangements were needed to bring ICNAF into line with the new jurisdictional realities. Discussions continued until agreement was reached in 1978 on a new international organization to replace ICNAF, to function in the Convention area outside 200 miles.

From 1977 until ICNAF was formally dissolved at the end of 1979, the Commission continued to manage fisheries in a somewhat abbreviated fashion for about 25 stocks compared to around 70 previously.

The Convention on Future Multilateral Cooperation in the Northwest Atlantic Fisheries, in 1978 came into force on 1 January 1979. This provided for the orderly transition from ICNAF to the new multilateral organization, the Northwest Atlantic Fisheries Organization (NAFO). ICNAF and NAFO were briefly operating in parallel. The Special Meeting adopted a resolution recommending that all Members of ICNAF withdraw from the Commission effective 31 December 1979, in accordance with Convention Article XVI, thereby terminating ICNAF.

The final report of ICNAF in 1979 stated: “This is the 29th and final annual report of the proceedings of the Commission and is an authoritative record of its activities from 1 July 1978 to the termination of operations of the Commission on 31 December 1979”. The opening remarks at that last meeting concluded that: 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 by means of "second-tier" TACs”. 

A List of References that detail the extensive history of ICNAF is available.

Categories: History, ICNAF

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