Analysis

Atlantic Bigeye Tuna Need Immediate Action by ICCAT

Risky decisions have set path for further depletion

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The Atlantic bigeye tuna is in trouble, but there is one action that scientists consistently suggest might help turn the situation around—reducing the catch of juvenile bigeye caught near fish aggregating devices (FADs). So far, however, this is a step that fishery managers have been unwilling to take.

At this point, the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) seems ready to once again ignore its own scientific advice—as it did initially with efforts to boost Atlantic bluefin tuna populations. On Atlantic bluefin, the commission acted in 2009, only after a proposed trade ban gained strong support from countries around the world. Failing to act quickly today could lead to serious declines in Atlantic bigeye.

Fishing for the tropical tunas—specifically bigeye, skipjack, and yellowfin— in the Atlantic Ocean is big business, worth at least $850 million a year to fishermen in the region. The total value reaches about $3.4 billion for tuna products sold in supermarkets and restaurants around the world. Unfortunately, this high value means that too many Atlantic bigeye have been caught in recent years, and too many of those have been juveniles.

Nearly all of these young bigeye are caught in the huge nets used by purse seine vessels that employ FADs to increase their take of skipjack tuna. Catching bigeye in this way, before they have had the chance to reproduce, is not sustainable. Doing so has far-reaching implications for coastal communities and small-scale fisheries. To make matters worse, ICCAT’s recent attempts to manage FAD fishing have come up short of expectations, and the bigeye population continues to suffer the consequences.

Paving the way for further depletion

In 2015, ICCAT’s scientific body determined that bigeye numbers in the Atlantic were too low. It attributed that status to overall fishing pressure and high levels of juvenile catch. The Standing Committee on Research and Statistics called for a reduction in fishing activity and a concerted effort to reduce the number of juveniles caught.

However, ICCAT managers made a series of risky management decisions last year in response to this dire assessment, which could leave the bigeye stock in worse shape:

  1. ICCAT adopted a bigeye catch limit that has only a 49 percent chance of ending overfishing and recovering the stock within 13 years. In reality, the adopted limit may not lead to any real catch reduction. The measure allows for overfishing to continue, and there is less than a 50/50 chance that bigeye will recover within a time frame that is arbitrarily long.

    Perhaps more distressingly, language in the measure could lead to exemptions from the limit for industrial fishing fleets, likely leading to a catch that is much higher than the adopted quota. If recent trends continue, that means there would be only a 35 percent chance of ending overfishing and stock recovery. That is not good enough for ICCAT. In addition, the measure does not meet the requirements of the European Union’s Common Fishery Policy, a disappointing move for an ICCAT member with one of the largest stakes in Atlantic bigeye fisheries.
  2. At the same time, ICCAT adopted a FAD closure without advice from its scientists and failed to implement it this year. Managers have suggested that establishing times and areas where FADs cannot be used will reduce the juvenile bigeye catch, improving the likelihood that the stock recovers or shortening the timeline to success. But there is no evidence that these closures will work. Instead, scientists believe that such actions could just shift fishing efforts elsewhere. Given that ICCAT so far has not implemented this action, the closure plan has not reduced mortality at all.
  3. ICCAT scientists determined the Atlantic bigeye stock to be overfished and experiencing overfishing. Managers considered options for improving the outlook, but the catch continued to rise in 2015. That year, the catch reached nearly 80,000 metric tons, the highest level in recent years. At a time when scientists were calling for catch reductions, fishing operations were taking more bigeye.

Turning the tide for bigeye—what is needed

ICCAT members can improve this situation when they meet Nov. 14-21 in Portugal by acting to make sure that bigeye doesn’t become the next Atlantic bluefin tuna. With that species, risky management decisions taken in contravention of the best available scientific advice led to severe depletion of an ICCAT-managed stock.

To put bigeye on a path to recovery—and preserve hundreds of millions of dollars generated by bigeye fisheries—managers need to address the catch of juvenile fish. They must extend and expand the mandate of the FAD Working Group with specific directions to develop appropriate FAD management options to reduce juvenile mortality.

Until ICCAT can provide clear scientific evidence that this catch has been curtailed to the point where recovery can be achieved rapidly, other direct management actions must be taken. The best available action to quickly reduce bigeye mortality is to cut the total annual catch to a level that offers a real chance at recovery (e.g., a 70 percent likelihood by 2024). Barring these actions, 2016 will not be any different than 2015, and bigeye tuna and bigeye fisheries will continue to be at risk of dangerous depletion.

Amanda Nickson directs global tuna conservation for The Pew Charitable Trusts.

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