International Policy: International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT)

Future of Atlantic Bluefin Tuna, Sharks, and Illegal Fishing Focus of 2013 Global Meeting

The International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas, or ICCAT, addressed the problems of severely depleted Atlantic bluefin tuna, shark species, and illegal fishing and fraud at its meeting in Cape Town, South Africa.

In recent years, ICCAT has begun to follow the scientific advice on bluefin tuna catch limits and to address illegal fishing and fraud. However, those steps came only after decades of mismanagement that led to sharp declines in the Atlantic bluefin population. ICCAT also has begun to apply measures to protect some species of sharks. At ICCAT’s 23rd annual meeting, the onus was on the 46 countries and the European Union that make up its membership to keep catch limits for Atlantic bluefin in line with the scientific advice, protect shark species, and adopt strong measures to improve enforcement. ICCAT is directly responsible for managing approximately 30 species of fish in the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea, including sharks that are often killed as bycatch.

"Delegates from 55 governments spent the past week in Cape Town debating the future of Atlantic bluefin tuna and several species of sharks, while also exploring ways to combat illegal fishing and fraud," said Elizabeth Wilson, who leads The Pew Charitable Trusts' international oceans policy program and who took part in the meeting. "They took positive action to rebuild Atlantic bluefin tuna populations and end illegal fishing in the Atlantic Ocean, but failed to address the plight of vulnerable shark species that are being significantly impacted, as fisheries remain largely unregulated."

What was at stake

Atlantic Bluefin Tuna

ICCAT must follow the scientific advice and maintain current catch limits for both the western and eastern Atlantic bluefin populations.

Atlantic bluefin tuna is one of the largest marine predators, weighing up to 1,500 pounds, and reaching speeds of up to 35 miles per hour. This highly prized commodity often commands tens of thousands of dollars per fish. The western population is at just 36 percent of 1970 levels, a time when the species was already experiencing industrial overfishing. While the 2012 stock assessment provides some hope for the eastern population, ICCAT’s scientists say that the rate and magnitude of recovery are highly uncertain and that current quotas should not be increased.

On-going illegal fishing and fraud continue to undermine conservation efforts. It is critical that ICCAT stick to its March 2014 deadline for transitioning from a paper-based to an electronic bluefin catch-documentation, or eBCD, system. This Internet-based approach will facilitate real-time reporting of catch and trade. It will also aid better enforcement of catch limits and combat persistent illegal fishing in the Mediterranean.


Sharks are slow-growing and reproduce late in life. Recent studies have shown that the level of shark fishing globally far exceeds their ability to recover. Because sharks are apex predators, the loss of these animals negatively affects marine environments, and ICCAT must prevent overfishing of sharks in its waters. Two of the species most in need of protections are shortfin mako and porbeagle sharks.

To prevent overfishing of shortfin makos, the fastest shark in the ocean, ICCAT should establish concrete, precautionary, science-based catch limits. If nations act to protect shortfin mako, it will be the first time that a regional fisheries management body has established a catch limit for a shark species.

The porbeagle, ICCAT’s second shark species of concern, can reach over 11 feet (3.5 meters) in length. Porbeagles must swim constantly to take in sufficient oxygen and keep warm. These sharks have a rare ability to raise their body temperature 7 to10 degrees Celsius above the surrounding water by moving constantly, an activity called thermoregulation. Sometimes referred to as the smaller cousin of the great white, the porbeagle has been added to Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, or CITES. That means countries must regulate trade in this species to ensure its sustainability. ICCAT delegates should put meaningful measures in place to prohibit retention of porbeagle sharks. This year, after a long stalemate, members should work to reach consensus on a measure that properly protects this animal.

Illegal Fishing

Illegal fishing is one of the most significant obstacles to effective and sustainable marine conservation. It has been an on-going problem in the Atlantic Ocean. Pew has long advocated for ICCAT to adopt new measures to combat illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing. Among these are efforts to improve and simplify identification of fishing vessels by a unique vessel identification number. The requirement of an International Maritime Organization number in order to fish in ICCAT-managed waters could prevent vessels from changing identities to avoid prosecution for illegal activities.

In addition, ICCAT also should increase the frequency of data collection for its Vessel Monitoring System from the current six hours to at least every two hours so the data can be used more effectively to track vessel movements.

Read our policy statement:

PRESS: Access photos and b-roll available for media use with related content ONLY here.


Christine Fletcher

Officer, Communications