Analysis

ICCAT Ignores Science and Increases Quota for Atlantic Bluefin Tuna

Commission’s actions put recent gains in jeopardy

The International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT), which ended its annual meeting on Nov. 17, has agreed to increase fishing quotas for Atlantic bluefin tuna.

"The increased quotas for Atlantic bluefin tuna are risky and threaten to undo recent gains,” said Amanda Nickson, who directs tuna conservation efforts for The Pew Charitable Trusts. “Significant concerns remain about the ability of these fish to fully recover from a long history of overfishing."

In addition, delegations to the meeting in Genoa, Italy, took no action on proposed shark protections and decided to again delay implementation of an electronic bluefin catch documentation system intended to better track fishing in the Atlantic Ocean waters under the commission’s jurisdiction.

"This year’s ICCAT decisions have been overwhelmingly disappointing. Several species, including bluefin tuna and porbeagle sharks, remain at serious risk from unsustainable fishing. Despite the last few years of progress from ICCAT countries, the decisions this year have shown that this commission is not accounting for critical vulnerabilities highlighted by science," said Paulus Tak, who led Pew’s delegation to ICCAT. "Instead of continuing progress toward adopting precautionary, science-based catch limits in some of these fisheries, member countries put in place very risky quotas that could lead to declines in bluefin populations."

Pew had recommended that ICCAT follow the scientific advice and maintain current quotas for both populations through 2016.

Not all commission actions were negative. "Commission members took positive steps toward ending illegal fishing, which is good, but, overall, the outcome this week underscores the need to keep the international spotlight fixed on this body," Tak said.

Atlantic bluefin tuna and the electronic catch documentation system

For western Atlantic bluefin tuna, members of ICCAT raised the quota to 2,000 metric tons, a 14 percent increase over last year’s. According to scientific assessments, although there has been measurable growth in this population, it is just as likely that increasing catch limits will reverse the positive trajectory as maintain it. In addition, the eastern bluefin tuna quota is set to increase by roughly 20 percent, to 15,821 metric tons, with certain member countries allowed an additional 321 metric tons as catch. The quota will increase by about 20 percent again in 2016 and for a third time in 2017.

With next year’s increased quotas, the need for tighter controls on undocumented and illegal catch and trade is more important than ever. Despite this, ICCAT members delayed the upcoming March deadline to implement a new system that would electronically track all catch and major sources of trade of Atlantic bluefin tuna.

"Despite ongoing reports of seizures of illegally caught fish, for the fourth straight year, governments are delaying the implementation of an electronic tracking system that would improve their ability to shrink the black market for Atlantic bluefin tuna," Nickson said.

Illegal fishing

Although ICCAT members did not act on illegal fishing of bluefin tuna, they did take steps to eliminate some illegal fishing that goes undetected. They agreed to set up a special fund to assist in the implementation of port inspection requirements. The use of International Maritime Organization numbers will also be increased and will now be mandatory for all vessels that are at least 20 meters long and fish for bigeye and yellowfin tuna.

ICCAT will also work to enhance the effectiveness of vessel monitoring systems (VMS), which use satellites to transmit information on a vessel’s location and fishing activities to aid authorities in monitoring, control, and surveillance efforts. Countries agreed that fishing vessels over 24 meters long will be required to transmit location data to any ICCAT coastal state when in its waters. The location will now be relayed every four hours, instead of the current six, a decision that was made by consensus.

Sharks

Member countries could not reach agreement on proposals that would have protected porbeagle and shortfin mako sharks, continuing to leave these populations at risk.

"Once again, ICCAT members ignored calls to sustainably manage shark populations. Porbeagle and shortfin mako sharks in the Atlantic Ocean will continue to be fished without limit, despite clear scientific advice that overfishing is depleting these populations,” said KerriLynn Miller, an expert with Pew’s global shark conservation program. “Failure to act goes against the recommendations of precautionary science and will only speed the decline of these top predators."

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