Managing tuna fisheries successfully is a complicated task. These fish populations extend beyond man-made borders and through international waters, making regional decision-making critical to effective management.
Over the long term, effective management benefits all involved in the process because it helps maintain a truly valuable resource. A recent Pew study found that commercial tuna fisheries generate more than $42 billion every year worldwide, not including the value derived from tourism, sport fishing, and maintenance of healthy ecosystems. That’s a lot of wealth to be shared—and critically important to coastal states with limited resources. The overall value then should be enough incentive to properly manage tuna stocks.
The United Nations Fish Stocks Agreement (UNFSA) has been in force since 2001 and requires countries to cooperate on the management of shared fish stocks like tuna. They typically do that through the work of regional fisheries management organizations (RFMOs).
The agreement calls for precautionary management that takes into consideration the impact that fishing has on the entire marine ecosystem. It also seeks measures to eliminate illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing.
With UN members gathering in New York in late May to conduct a periodic evaluation of the agreement, Pew assessed the progress made by the world’s tuna RFMOs in implementing some of the requirements. The results, broken down by RFMO, show that in many instances they still have a long way to go. It’s not that the scientific advice is poor or that fishery managers lack the tools to get the job done. The real question is whether the countries responsible for managing these fish stocks are following through on the commitments they've made to do a better job.
While a few depleted tuna stocks, such as eastern Atlantic bluefin, are on the road to recovery, many others continue to experience overfishing. The agreement mandates precautionary management to "protect the living marine resources and preserve the marine environment."
The RFMOs can meet this obligation by establishing what are known as reference points. A target reference point identifies the ideal level of fishing, while a limit reference point defines the danger zone for a stock, the point beyond which fishing is no longer sustainable. Setting these based on the best science can help restore depleted stocks or ensure that healthy populations remain vibrant for years to come.
Although some progress has been made toward implementation of reference points, few have actually been designated. Some RFMOs have committed to develop reference points but have yet to do so. Others have adopted interim reference points, but these often are not consistent with achieving sustainability based on the best available scientific information. As a result, only a limited number of tuna stocks are currently managed based on these guideposts.
The agreement calls for fishery managers to "assess the impacts of fishing, other human activities and environmental factors on target stocks and species belonging to the same ecosystem or associated with or dependent upon the target stocks."
Sharks are among the species most threatened by tuna fishing. Still, no RFMO has taken sufficient action to fully manage sharks, which continue to be caught in significant numbers. Unfortunately, the debate over how to define much of the shark catch—whether it is targeted or an example of unintended bycatch—has prevented some members from implementing effective, precautionary management.
In addition, members of several RFMOs have said they cannot act on proposals because they lack sufficient information, but that goes against their obligations to apply the precautionary approach. For vulnerable shark and ray species, this inaction could lead to stock collapses, as seen with oceanic whitetip sharks globally.
Fisheries management decisions will accomplish little if there is no way to ensure that measures put in place by RFMOs are implemented and enforced. Since the adoption of the Fish Stocks Agreement, the international community has reached a consensus about the critical importance of requiring that fishing vessels have unique and permanent identification numbers so managers can better track them.
Between 2013 and 2015, nine RFMOs adopted measures that require fishing vessels to have International Maritime Organization (IMO) numbers, which cost nothing to obtain. Despite this progress, RFMO members continue to authorize vessels to fish even if they don’t have these numbers.
Once identifiable, these fishing vessels can be tracked using technologies such as vessel monitoring systems. While most RFMOs require some form of monitoring, they do not ensure the accuracy of data collected or require that the information be shared with authorities. In addition, some governments have not fully implemented the requirements because of limited capacity or other challenges.
Tuna RFMOs have made some progress since the last review in 2010, but much remains to be done.
Tuna populations must be managed using precautionary reference points that help restore depleted populations and maintain the health of stocks that are still in good shape. Conservation measures that apply the ecosystem approach, particularly for sharks, must be implemented without delay. RFMO members also will find it easier to ensure compliance if they can identify vessels and effectively monitor fleets.
It’s time for members to take the steps needed to ensure that the provisions in the Fish Stocks Agreement are fully integrated into decision-making in international tuna fisheries.
Elizabeth Wilson directs the international ocean policy team at The Pew Charitable Trusts, and Amanda Nickson directs Pew’s global tuna conservation efforts.