The International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) has just started its 26th Regular Meeting of the Commission. Last fall, as part of my thesis fieldwork, I attended the 21st Special Meeting of ICCAT in Dubrovnik, Croatia. In a nutshell, these are the annual gatherings for government representatives to collectively debate and adopt fishing policies and management measures for the tuna species in the Atlantic Ocean. In addition to government delegates, ICCAT is also attended by representatives of environmental conservation organizations, as well as people affiliated with fishing companies. Collectively this equates to over 800 people sitting and talking (often heatedly) around a table in a massive conference hall for about ten days.
Being in the meeting most of the time I had only been able to sneak quick glances out at the lovely weather we had all week while I was in Dubrovnik. And, sadly, the day after the meeting ended, the thunderstorm of the year hit the city. I tried to do a bit of sightseeing, but it was pretty pointless and so, playing it safe (i.e., there was nothing else to do), I headed to the airport early. My flight to Zagreb was supposed to be at 5:30 but I didn’t even know if it would still go—checking online showed nothing but delays and cancellations.
I need not have worried because I was in excellent company once I arrived. About 250 other people from ICCAT were sitting around the tiny airport in various spots wallowing in the misery of the thunder and lightning outside and the uncertainty of whether or not we would all be spending another night in Dubrovnik together. The palms outside the cafeteria near the check-in desks were getting shaken so hard that their movement kept triggering the motion-activated glass doors to the patio and every couple minutes we were all besieged with a wet gust of wind and the sound of the Amazon in the rainy season. It’s also important that I point out that the Dubrovnik airport is not Heathrow. I think it has three departure gates and sees a daily total of eight flights, all within the EU. It was not built for business travellers. So when I finally made my way through security, I found that the snack kiosk had been totally raided and all that remained were five or six bags of chips (all looking very helpless flopped on their sides or lying face down in the aftermath of what was surely an unexpected attack on their troops), a full shelf of yogurt parfaits (clearly not a health-conscious crowd), and a couple cans of pop (anything with even a modest alcohol content was long gone). And cash only. Because the storm was causing problems for the credit machines.
This is one reason why I love travel. It is the great equalizer. Whether you’re from a high or low-income country, whether you own a fishing company or work for a non-profit, everyone is subject to the same delays, everyone has to grin and bear long layovers, anyone’s luggage can go missing. It was odd to see government delegates who had been sporting nicely pressed suits and bright ties for the last ten days now dressed in fleece hoodies and jeans eating egg salad sandwiches from plastic boxes. The EU delegation was huddled at tables they had pushed together, the Japanese delegation sat at a small booth, the Americans were roaming aimlessly around the Duty-Free, and the Brazilians pulled up a chair for me and gave me a beer. By some miracle, I saw across the room that the environmental NGOs had gained a monopoly on all the power outlets in the room and, for the first time all week, seemed to be in the best spirits of everyone. Amazing what a little power can do (figuratively and literally). After a week of mostly unproductive discussion between delegates, which resulted in a failure to adopt any meaningful conservation measures, everyone had to endure each other’s company one last time. There was no escape. It really was a miserable, comical, and surreal sight to behold. And yet, it was so poignantly human that I couldn’t help but smile.
Of course, we did get out eventually, and we all sprinted like Boxing Day shoppers to our connections out of Zagreb. But my last few hours in Croatia were also markedly emblematic of the whole. I went to ICCAT thinking I would get a couple dozen or so interviews done for my thesis and some more first-hand experience in how RFMOs function. And yes, I did. But more than anything, the whole week felt like a lesson in the authenticity of humanity rather than the failure of an international institution. One day, as I was walking to the cafeteria for lunch, I saw one of the delegates beaming from ear to ear as he Facetimed with a little girl (I assume his daughter). Another evening as the discussion was dragging on in the main hall, I noticed a guy from one of the industry NGOs texting someone (I assume his significant other) kissing emojis and hearts. Then there were some industry reps who I sat behind one afternoon, seemingly disinterested in the discussion at the table and instead scrolling through their smartphones at content rather inappropriate for an international meeting. Outside of the meeting venue, I was greeted every night at the local wine bar by a cheerful middle-age Croatian woman who hardly spoke a word of English. Only once did she have any other guests, but her bar was always open when I arrived, and each time she welcomed me with a warm smile and a basket of bread with olive oil.
The thing that struck me the most about ICCAT was that regardless of what our ID tag said or where we sat at the table, we are all just people. We may not always understand one another’s culture or background or language, we may not always agree on how to fix a problem or how we ended up there in the first place, but everyone in the room does have the same overall goal. And, as we work toward that goal, we can always practice kindness and generosity instead of judgment. I gained huge respect for all the people I met and interviewed. Sure, a lot of the time I was incredibly frustrated as a bystander and I did not always agree with the decisions they made or the tactics used, and there are significant underlying problems affecting the global seafood trade—including political corruption. And while I don’t forgive them for these failures (I don’t think that absolution is mine to make anyway), the more I learn and the more I see, I am beginning to realize how complicated governance of transboundary fish is in practice. The problem with a lot of research is we assume that people behave rationally. Or, as academics, we think that if we publish a paper that has suggestions around improving management then policymakers will see it as valuable and actually want to implement our suggestions. But rarely is this the case. This is not to say our work can’t or doesn’t have impact—it does—but for most delegates, attending ICCAT is just their job. These people are responsible for looking out for the interests of their country’s economy and they could just as well be discussing olives or timber as bigeye tuna. They don’t actively seek out peer-reviewed journal articles to read each night before bed. And while I worry that the research I do makes little difference, I also know that it’s ok for them not to see the world the same way I do. Because if we saw everything the same, how boring life would be.
These meetings have also made me realize that I’d be a terrible politician. I like everyone too much. I care too much for the people I meet because I see them as humans, not as the countries or industries or institutions they represent. And so, while I want to contribute positively to all of this, I still don’t really know how. Most of the people in these meetings know so much more than I do, and I feel rather silly thinking that I will ever be able to tell them something new or useful. And yet, maybe, I can still do something they can’t. Maybe, as someone who has autonomy, who conducts independent and unbiased research, who can talk to people from all backgrounds and affiliations, maybe there is something I can see that they can’t. They can’t bully me or bribe me because I am of no value to them. Yet if I don’t include their perspectives, they fear they will be misrepresented. It was amazing to me how many people actually wanted to talk to me because they wanted to make sure my work wasn’t biased against them. All week I noticed people watching me as I wound my way through the crowds or stood silently at a table during break. I think most people there didn’t know what to make of me but once they saw me talking to people with opposing views to theirs, they wanted to make their voice heard too. And so, while it’s a pipedream, an ability to hold their attention is still something. Right now, all I can do is continue to be genuine in all our interactions. Because that is how trust is built. And there can be no progress toward common ground without trust. This year, at the 26th Meeting In Mallorca, Spain (which I am also attending), I hope the to build on the relationships I formed last year. Because regardless of their affiliation, I want the people here to know I care about the work they do, and I want my work to contribute to ensuring they can do their job effectively in to the future. To do that, I need to understand and experience their job as best I can. Because, ultimately, there isn’t really any debate when it comes to one thing: all everyone wants is healthy stocks and sustainable tuna fisheries in the Atlantic.