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Thinking Fast and Slow: Keeping pace with international fisheries policy

By Madi Harris,
NOAA Fisheries,
Office of International Affairs and Seafood Inspection Foreign Affairs Fellow

Speed-walking down 5th Avenue in my suit while fighting early Manhattan summer humidity was not the morning I had planned for myself. Expecting the early Amtrak train from D.C. to New York to be on schedule may have been my own naivety, but I now found myself tempting a late arrival for my very first meeting at the United Nations (UN)


“We’re meeting with Canada and the EU in 20,” an unwelcome email reminder from a co-worker lights up my phone. 


I pick up my pace and manage to get through the line at the badging office quickly, at the cost of a very sweaty-looking ID photo. Doing my best to hide my shortness of breath, I’m finally able to meet up with my co-workers just as they are walking into the delegates’ entrance of the UN Headquarters. Luckily, I make it, albeit frazzled, to our early huddle meetings with partners before the opening of the first session of the meeting I was there to attend, the 14th Round of Informal Consultations of the UN Fish Stocks Agreement. No one even seems to mind that I ran out of time to change from my bright blue running shoes to my heels before I walk past the historic hall of the General Assembly.



To those that know me well, a story about me running (literally) late is not a surprising one. But I will be the first to admit that the fast-paced environment is not at all what I had expected when I accepted my Knauss fellowship placement.


Why International Fisheries Policy?

As a Sea Grant Knauss Fellow, I am spending my fellowship year supporting the NOAA Fisheries Office of International Affairs and Seafood Inspection. The past 7 months have been a tremendous learning experience for me, as I dove into a completely new area of work. Though I had studied environmental law and policy in grad school, I did not fully understand what fisheries policy and negotiations looked like at the international level until I jumped head-first into this new position. 



Unsurprisingly, the average seafood connoisseur might not wistfully dwell on the many international laws and agreements that are necessary to govern the way fish are caught, managed, and traded back and forth around the world before it ends up in front of them on their plate at dinner. When discussing my work, I often find myself explaining to friends and family that – yes, indeed there are international treaties exclusively for fish. Just like any other global commons managed under international law, one country’s management of its fisheries inherently affects the availability and strength of those fish populations for other countries around the world. Especially with highly migratory species like tunas and sharks that can travel thousands of miles each year across ocean basins, international cooperation is key to their successful management.


During my fellowship so far, I’ve been exposed to the many ways in which the United States engages in international fisheries management. This is done through multilateral agreements and conventions like the consultations I attended at the UN or through Regional Fishery Management Organizations (RFMOs) that manage highly migratory species or fish stocks that span national jurisdictions and international waters around the world. The United States also engages bilaterally (i.e. one-on-one) with countries each year to jointly discuss, negotiate, and make progress on challenging fisheries policy issues we share with other nations. 



The Slow Work of Building Consensus

From the outside looking in, international policy achievements can seem slow-moving and infrequent. New treaties can take decades to create, as global problems only seem to grow in weight and complexity. Yet, my perception of the slow pace of international work was met with the contrasting fast-paced needs of my office. Running late to attend my first UN meeting is certainly one example of this, but more broadly, my work in the NOAA Fisheries Office of International Affairs requires quick actions and responses almost every day. I learned very quickly this year that the world of international fisheries policy is dynamic; situations shift in response to geopolitical relations, trade disputes, and changes in national leadership. This means that foreign affairs specialists are expected to keep tabs on developing situations and international trends that could affect U.S. positions or portend our stakes in future negotiations.


Day-to-day,  I might be responding to questions from NOAA political leadership, sending out requests to colleagues to compile the latest data or information available on a subject, or preparing meetings to host foreign delegations. Adding to the complexity, U.S. international fisheries policy requires constant coordination with NOAA colleagues and other agencies to understand how a current effort may be affected by negotiations ongoing in different regions and U.S. policy positions in other sectors



It has taken me months to wrap my head around the discrepancy between my experience of the rapid-fire needs of my office, and my understanding of the seemingly slow progress of international environmental policy. However, this fellowship has taught me that the international achievements that do come to fruition are the result of persistent hard work and momentum. Successes are the result of years of huddled negotiations on the “sidelines” of meetings, continuous bilateral engagement, and coordination with partners around the world. Interpersonal relationships, trust-building, and open communication are all important pieces of a puzzle that require the dedicated and coordinated work of scientists and policy experts that collaborate daily on these important fishery management issues. 


Walking back to my hotel in Manhattan after a long day of discussions at the UN, I reflected on everyone I had met, the interesting presentations made during the meeting, and the many small groups I had seen discussing and debating ideas in-between sessions. The day was similar to many days at work since I started my fellowship – full, fast-paced, and even a little stressful at times. Though I continue to learn and understand this field in new and different ways every day, it seems that, in the world of international fisheries policy, continuous swift and dedicated work ar necessary to keep international momentum moving, however slowly – making those moments of international achievement and consensus, all the more worth celebrating.

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