A Tuna Empire at Risk
The Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission faces tough issues to ensure legal and sustainable fishing in a vast area of the Pacific Ocean.
If you were king or queen of the ocean for a day, what would you do? How about if you ruled one-fifth of the world? Well, one body—the IATTC—manages tuna fisheries across 68 million square kilometers (26 million square miles) of the Pacific Ocean. That's about 20 percent of the world's total ocean area.
As the IATTC convenes for its 83nd annual meeting June 25-29 in La Jolla, California, the Pew Environment Group urges it to ensure that tuna and shark fishing within its jurisdiction is legal and sustainable and is managed by policies that include sufficiently strong protections for species caught incidentally, known as bycatch.
The IATTC must do more to manage and protect stocks of bigeye, yellowfin, skipjack, and Pacific bluefin tuna. All are heavily exploited in the eastern Pacific, where more than half a million metric tons of tuna was caught in 2011.
Under the Antigua Convention, which provides the mandate for IATTC, the Commission has a responsibility to take a precautionary approach to fishing, meaning that management should be more cautious when information is uncertain, unreliable, or inadequate, as is often the case in fisheries.
Pacific bluefin and bigeye tuna are being overfished, and skipjack catch numbers suggest that species may soon be subject to overfishing. Thus Pew is urging the Commission to set precautionary catch limits based on sound and current science for all tuna species fished in the eastern Pacific Ocean. This is particularly urgent for Pacific bluefin, for which science-based catch limits failed to pass at the past two IATTC meetings.
The IATTC also must get serious about managing fish aggregating devices (FADs). These huge floating platforms are designed to attract tuna and are used extensively by fishing fleets in the eastern Pacific to catch millions of ton of tuna and other species every year. In addition to hastening the alarming depletion of fisheries, FADs adversely affect juvenile tunas and other marine species, including sharks and turtles.
Shark fisheries, as well as tuna fisheries that catch sharks as bycatch, pose serious threats to the survival of many shark species. Populations are so imperiled that more than half of the species caught in the high seas are classified as Endangered, Vulnerable, or Near Threatened by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
Sharks in international waters are among the ocean's most vulnerable animals in part because they lack the fisheries protections and enforcement that are often found closer to shore. Sharks are vital to the balance of life in our oceans, and they need our help. Pew believes that shark fishing should not occur in IATTC waters until the Commission implements precautionary science-based management plans.
Hammerhead and silky sharks are particularly affected by fishing in the IATTC convention area. Hammerheads are targeted for their highly valued fins and are also caught incidentally as bycatch. Silky sharks are the main shark species caught by purse seines as well as by longlines. Data from the ongoing silky shark assessment show that their populations in the IATTC region have declined significantly.
At this year's meeting, the Pew Environment Group is urging governments to require the release of any hammerhead or silky sharks caught in fishing gear. Considering the serious depletion of shark populations in the region, the IATTC should also (a) strengthen the existing ban on shark finning by prohibiting the removal of shark fins at sea and (b) reduce shark bycatch by banning the use of wire leaders, also known as steel traces, on longline vessels.
Pirate fishing and overcapacity
To create a sustainable tuna fishery, IATTC must also rein in illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing and overcapacity (too many fishing vessels) in the convention area. To fight IUU fishing, IATTC needs to adopt stricter penalties for violations, and port State parties must implement effective controls to stop the sale and transfer of illegally caught fish. According to law-enforcement officials and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, fishing vessels engaged in pirate fishing are often also involved in other crimes, from drug and arms smuggling to human trafficking.
Pew believes that fighting IUU fishing requires a multi-front approach, with strong laws and enforcement both at sea and in port. One urgent need is adoption of a system of minimum standards for inspection of vessels at port. Also needed is a mandate for unique vessel identifiers (UVIs) for all tuna fishing and support vessels. Each UVI would accompany the vessel throughout its life, similar to a vehicle identification number on an automobile. Without UVIs, it is very easy for pirate fishing operators to change the identity of an illegal vessel and avoid detection by enforcement officials.
Media Contact: John Briley