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The precautionary approach gave rise to some debate since it has been seen by some as a call for such extreme measures as moratoria. Experts, however, were quick to mention that moratoria are only one of the possible measures that can be taken as a result of the application of the precautionary approach. The concept itself has been seen in different lights, with some delegations refering to the precautionary approach and others to the precautionary principle. There was agreement, however, on the need for more responsible fishing, as exemplified by the collpase and overfishing of some stocks.

The concept of precautionary principle/approach clearly needs to be defined with more care. Some States would like to see Principle 15 of the Rio Declaration translated automatically to the field of fisheries, but others point to the FAO reports that clearly indicate that some adaptation has to be made before the principle is applied to fisheries. This has led to an amount of theoretical discussion on the respective relevances of Agenda 21 and the Law of the Sea with respect to fisheries.

The application of the principle also gives rise to some uncertainty, since in order to gain credibility it has to be applied both with consistency and throughout the range of migratory and straddling species. The principle has been seen as a means of limiting the natural law that has led to overfishing and replacing it with a more human law. In particular, it has been envisioned as a way to limit the entry into newly-discovered fishing grounds. In the absence of such measures, the effort carried out is likely to exceed the harvesting capacity of the stock and lead to overfishing.

The principle only reached unanimity when it was considered as a general guiding concept, but the views diverged as to the extent to which it should be applied. While some delegations interpreted it as a justification for taking conservative measures such as Total Allowable Catch (TACs) below the Maximum Sustainable Yield (MSY), others insisted that the result may be the absence of TACs. In particular, one delegate highlighted the fact that fishing ought to be seen as an economic activity and that, in this respect, economic and social dimensions have to be kept in mind.

A delegate held the view that the precautionary approach should always be applied but with even greater care in case of scientific uncertainty. There was, however, disagreement as to the definition of the best scientific information available. Representatives did agree that the application of the precautionary approach/principle needs to evolve over time with the availability of new scientific information.

A number of documents were circulated that identified different positions on the issue. The Chair's draft document referred specifically to Principle 15 of the Rio declaration and thus met some opposition. The US position, as stated in document A/CONF.164/L.15, states that the precautionary approach should be used to maintain the stocks at a productive level and preserve future use options, but does not necessarily require a moratorium. Canada circulated a document in which it distinguished the application of the principle to straddling and highly migratory fish stocks. It also emphasized the need to adopt a precautionary approach in the case of newly discovered stocks, where the risk of excessive entry is the greatest. The NGOs expressed their concern that all management measures take explicit account of the full range of uncertainties inherent in fisheries science and management. In the case of newly discovered stocks, they called on extremely conservative catch and effort levels to be established until sufficient data is known.

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