Swimming Atlantic bluefin tuna.
© Richard Hermann
The Atlantic Ocean’s tuna fisheries are worth a great deal of money. Fishermen target five commercial species, bringing in an annual catch valued at more than $1.1 billion dockside and more than $4.5 billion at the final point of sale. Members of the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) will consider critical steps to improve management of these fisheries when they meet in Vilamoura, Portugal, from Nov. 14-21.
At the end of October, ICCAT members received important guidance in an independent performance review done for the commission, a follow-up to a heavily critical first review in 2008. Although the new analysis suggests that ICCAT management has improved, particularly for eastern bluefin tuna, it highlights a new concern: management of bigeye tuna. Overall, the review stresses the need for long-term strategies to ensure that all priority stocks are sustainable.
The review finds that Atlantic bigeye is one of the stocks in most serious need of attention. It concludes that ICCAT’s current rebuilding plan does not achieve the objectives of the Convention because it has a less than 50 percent probability of rebuilding the stock in more than 10 years. To end overfishing and help bigeye recover from its overfished state, ICCAT must follow the review’s recommendation to make bigeye a “key immediate management priority.” At their annual meeting, members should adopt measures to reduce overall catch, especially the catch of juvenile fish.
The review rightfully underscores the need for a new and modern management approach— what are known as harvest strategies—to ensure that stocks such as eastern bluefin fully recover and that the fisheries are profitable, stable, and sustainable in the long term. It also urges ICCAT to implement a precautionary approach to fisheries management, especially when the science is uncertain, and questions whether current likelihoods of recovery for ICCAT stocks are high enough to ensure they will actually reach healthy levels.
Tuna populations are ICCAT’s primary responsibility, but Commission policies also have a large impact on sharks and other species in these fisheries. Around the world, about 100 million sharks are killed each year in commercial fisheries, an unsustainable number. Blue sharks, for example, are widely caught across the ICCAT range, although there is little data about their populations. Stock assessments, therefore, suffer from high levels of uncertainty. In addition, shortfin mako sharks, which are slow to reproduce and highly susceptible to being caught, are particularly vulnerable to fishing.
As noted by the performance review, ICCAT should do a better job following the precautionary approach and make a priority of setting catch limits for sharks that are regularly caught, even when complete data may be lacking. Given sharks’ biological vulnerability, this recommendation must be followed urgently if ICCAT is to fulfill its role as an effective steward of Atlantic migratory shark species. This must start this year, with firm catch limits on blue and shortfin mako sharks caught in what are now unregulated fisheries within the ICCAT Convention Area.
Setting responsible catch limits is a critical function of ICCAT, but these cannot be enforced without meaningful efforts to combat illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing. This year, ICCAT has the chance to strengthen two systems that increase transparency and accountability of all members.
Vessel monitoring systems (VMS) and International Maritime Organization (IMO) numbers can help ICCAT track authorized fishing vessels and determine whether they are complying with Commission measures. This year, ICCAT should take steps to enhance its VMS by increasing centralization and to make sure it fully implements the requirement that all vessels authorized to fish in Commission waters have the unique and permanent IMO numbers. Both steps make it easier to combat IUU activities.
ICCAT decision-makers have seen what needs to be done in their own performance review. Now they must implement management measures that work, so these fisheries worth billions of dollars remain strong and sustainable into the future.
Amanda Nickson directs The Pew Charitable Trusts’ global tuna conservation work, Luke Warwick leads its global shark conservation campaign, and Tony Long heads the ending illegal fishing project.