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NAFO Convention Grand Banks Area

Case Authors

Amy Samples, Julia Wondolleck and Steven Yaffee, University of Michigan


The Northwest Atlantic Fishing Organization (NAFO), an intergovernmental fisheries science and management body, was founded in 1979 as a successor to the International Commission for the Northwest Atlantic Fisheries.

NAFO’s 1979 Convention on “Future Multilateral Cooperation in the Northwest Atlantic Fisheries” was created after a number of coastal States introduced a national exclusive 200 mile economic zone. The NAFO Convention reflects the effort to continue the international cooperation in these waters and maintain the compatibility of conservation and management measures between the coastal and the international areas while respecting the exclusive rights of the coastal states.

NAFO has twelve member countries from North America, Europe, the Caribbean and Asia.

NAFO’s objectives were recently updated to include an ecosystem approach to fisheries management, expanding from maintaining a sustainable fishery to protecting the associated marine ecosystem from adverse fisheries effects. The convention does not apply to salmon, tunas/marlins and mammals as these are already under the responsibility of other intergovernmental regional fisheries management bodies. It also does not apply to sedentary species such as many shellfish over which coastal States exercise rights.

MEBM Attributes

NOTE: This is largely a fisheries based effort, though the Northwest Atlantic Fishing Organization Convention Amendment does promote an ecosystem approach.

  • Collaboration: Collaboration across the range of resource users (12 countries utilizing the NAFO Convention Area – four using Exclusive Economic Zones and remainder fishing in the Regulatory Area.)


Mission and Primary Objectives


The primary mission of the Northwest Atlantic Fishing Organization (NAFO) has been to contribute through consultation and cooperation to the optimum utilization, rational management and conservation of the fishery resources of the Convention Area. NAFO aims to promote contemporary ideas for international collaboration in the high seas based on the scientific research fundamentals.


NAFO’s objectives were recently updated to include an ecosystem approach to fisheries management. The Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) explains the new approach:

“NAFO is committed to an ecosystem approach to fisheries management. NAFO’s management includes provisions that minimize the harmful impact of fishing activities on living marine resources and marine ecosystems, and requirements that preserve marine bio-diversity. Its work protecting sensitive deepwater habitats such as seamounts and corals is one example of this. Supporting scientific research and advice is a major part of NAFO’s mandate.”

Key Parties

Lead Organizations

  • Northwest Atlantic Fisheries Organization (NAFO)

Key Parties

  • Government of Canada: Fisheries and Oceans Canada
  • Government of Canada: Standing Committee on Fisheries and Oceans, on Foreign Overfishing
  • Government of United States of America
  • Government of France (in respect of St. Pierre et Miquelon)
  • Government of Denmark (in respect of Faroe Islands and Greenland)
  • World Wildlife Fund (lobbied for stricter harvest controls)


Program Structure

NAFO Convention  Area and the Regulatory Area

The NAFO Convention Area encompasses a large portion of the North Atlantic Ocean and includes the 200-mile exclusive economic zones of coastal states. However, regulatory action by NAFO is limited to those parts of the Convention Area beyond areas of national jurisdiction. This is called the Regulatory Area.

Constituent Bodies

The constituent bodies of NAFO are the General Council, Scientific Council, Fisheries Commission, and the Secretariat, whose specific functions are set out in the Convention, Rules of Procedure and the Staff Rules.

  • The General Council is responsible for internal affairs and external relations. The General Council Chair also serves as the President of NAFO.
  • The Scientific Council gives advice on upon request on the status of fish stocks in the NAFO Convention Area to Fisheries Commission and Coastal States. This group publishes the NAFO Journal of Northwest Atlantic Fishery Science.
  • The Fisheries Commission is responsible for the management and conservation of fishery resources and the Regulatory Area (waters outside the EEZs). It annually decides on the NAFO fisheries regulations, TACs, and quotas.
  • The Secretariat (NAFO headquarters) is located in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, Canada. 


Motivations for Initiating Effort

In the early 1990s, the collapse and closure of the cod fishery drew attention to overfishing in the Grand Banks area. This ecological circumstance paired with the declaration of exclusive economic zones (EEZs) made for conflicting claims on an already dwindling resource.

Consequently the Convention on Future Multilateral Cooperation in the Northwest Atlantic Fisheries, came into force on January 1, 1979 following the ratification, acceptance and approval by seven signatories: Canada, Cuba, the European Economic Community, German Democratic Republic, Iceland, Norway, and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.

This Convention established the Northwest Atlantic Fisheries Organization (NAFO) and replaced the 1949 International Convention for the Northwest Atlantic Fisheries and the International Commission for the Northwest Atlantic Fisheries.

Ecosystem Characteristics and Threats

The Ecosystem

Located on a shallow continental shelf, the Grand Banks receive a rich supply of nutrients and oxygen in the cold Labrador current. This area contains one of the largest fish stocks of the Atlantic Ocean, and fleets from all over the world have been fishing here regularly for centuries.


  • Groundfish Collapse and Bycatch. The Northwest Atlantic Fishing Organization (NAFO) Regulatory Area includes the Grand Banks and the Flemish Cap off Newfoundland’s east coast which historically supported a thriving groundfish population. However, from the 1960s to the 1980s, excessive fishing pushed the stocks to the point of collapse. In 1992, a Canadian moratorium closed the commercial Northern cod fishery. Species have been slow to recover which the World Wildlife Fund attributes to excessive bycatch which peaked in 2003 when bycatch amounts were estimated to be over 80 percent of the remaining cod stock.
  • Social Conflict. The mismatch of ecological and management boundaries are further complicating rehabilitation efforts. Although Canada has had exclusive jurisdiction over its 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) since 1977, biologically important areas of the Grand Banks immediately adjacent to the EEZ fall under international high seas management by NAFO. Thus, stocks are split between management paradigms and are not benefiting from complete protections. Canada’s Standing Committee on Fisheries and Oceans, on Foreign Overfishing recommended that the nation declare custodial rights over the split stocks, by claiming the Flemish Cap under their jurisdiction. This is obviously a contentious proposal since a variety of nations fish the NAFO Convention Area.


Major Strategies

Based on scientific advice, the Northwest Atlantic Fishing Organization (NAFO) adopts a comprehensive range of management and conservation measures.

Harvest Regulations

The NAFO Fisheries Commission meets once a year to adopt Conservation and Enforcement Measures (CEM) for the international fisheries. Such measures include setting limits for total allowable catches (TACs) and quotas (the share of the TAC that each member State is allowed to fish) for each stock. While the annually changing TACs and quotas (including moratoria) as listed in the NAFO quota table are among the most prominent management measures to regulate fisheries, there are a number of other measures that can also play and important role to protect fishery resources and their environment. As a precautionary measure in the context of an Ecosystem Approach, NAFO has closed six possible vulnerable marine ecosystems to bottom fisheries (five seamounts and a large coral area along the southern Grand Banks).

Other NAFO management measures include bycatch and gear restrictions, minimum fish size regulations as well as area and time limitations.

Resource Assessment

To track stock status, NAFO tracks habitat and biology, geographic distribution, exploitation (catch versus total allowed catch), assessment (recruitment, biomass, mortality data and models), biological state and trend, management advice, and data sources for a number of commercially harvested species. Species assessed:

  • American Plaice - Flemish Cap
  • American Plaice - Grand Bank
  • Atlantic Cod - Flemish Cap
  • Atlantic Cod - Grand Bank
  • Atlantic cod - Northeast Newfoundland Shelf and Northern Grand Bank
  • Capelin - Southern Grand Bank
  • Greenland halibut - Labrador Shelf, Northeast Newfoundland Shelf, Northern Grand Bank
  • Northern Prawn - Flemish Cap
  • Northern Prawn - Grand Bank
  • Redfish - Flemish Cap
  • Redfish - North and Southeastern Grand Bank
  • Redfish - Southwestern Grand Bank
  • Squid - Scotian Shelf, Grand Bank
  • Thorny skate - Grand Bank
  • White hake - Southern Grand Bank
  • Witch flounder - Northeast Newfoundland Shelf and Northern Grand Bank
  • Witch flounder - Southern Grand Bank
  • Yellowtail flounder - Grand Bank


Monitoring, Assessment and Evaluation


To ensure that its conservation measures are followed, NAFO has developed a comprehensive set of regulations to monitor, survey and control the fisheries. Some of these measures are:

  • Register of all vessels authorized to fish in the NAFO area.
  • Comprehensive reporting and recording requirements of catches and fishing effort by vessel masters, port authorities and flag States.
  • Labeling of fish products, stowage requirements and marking of gear.
  • Requirements to carry an independent observer on board.
  • Vessel Monitoring System.


Scientists from NAFO member States contribute to the assessment of fish and ecosystems in the NAFO Convention Area by conducting scientific surveys and evaluating other relevant information. The NAFO Scientific Council meets several times each year to discuss its findings, coordinate its research activities and prepare scientific advice for the Fisheries Commission and Coastal States.

The information used by the NAFO scientists includes but is not limited to catch statistics from NAFO Contracting parties as well as data gathered on commercial and research vessels and in landing ports.


According to Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) NAFO has:

  • Advanced precautionary and ecosystem approaches among its members.
  • Strengthened its monitoring, control and surveillance systems.
  • Enhanced the transparency of the organization.

As a result, the compliance of fishing vessels with NAFO regulations has visibly increased, illegal, unreported and uncontrolled (IUU) fishing has decreased, and some fish stocks are already showing signs of recovery. However, in spite of the modern approaches to fisheries management, the abundance of many traditional NAFO fish stocks continues to be low, an indication that the rebuilding process will take time.

Website Links

Northwest Atlantic Fisheries Organization.