FAQ: Tunas, Sharks Have Much to Gain—or Lose—at Fisheries Meeting

ICCAT should err on side of caution in setting quotas and work toward ending yearly squabbles

FAQ: Tunas, Sharks Have Much to Gain

The International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas is set to make critical decisions that could determine the future of Atlantic bluefin tuna.

© Greg Lecoeur

When the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) meets Nov. 14-22 in Marrakesh, Morocco, the fate of the valuable Atlantic bluefin tuna and the vulnerable shortfin mako shark will hang in the balance. Although ICCAT’s 51 member governments focus mostly on tunas, they also make decisions about other species, such as sharks, that are often caught in association with tuna within ICCAT’s management area.

Measures such as quotas and prohibitions for these important species will help determine whether ICCAT is serious about managing fisheries for the future, not just for short-term economic benefits. 

In advance of ICCAT meetings, The Pew Charitable Trusts receives a lot of questions about the status of these stocks, the way in which ICCAT conducts its business, and the best path forward to ensure healthy fisheries. Here are answers to the questions we hear most often.

Q: Have ICCAT decisions led Atlantic bluefin tuna stocks to recover?

A: Both the eastern and western stocks of Atlantic bluefin tuna were so depleted just eight years ago that an international trade ban was considered and ICCAT was labeled an “international disgrace” in an independent performance review. Although precautionary science-based management has helped both stocks begin to rebuild, particularly the eastern stock, this year’s assessment results were so uncertain that scientists declined to use the findings to make definitive statements on the recovery status of either stock. Even with that uncertainty, the assessment showed that the western stock was just 45 to 69 percent of what it was in 1974—when it was already depleted—and that eastern bluefin could still be overfished.

Q: If bluefin are doing better, what’s wrong with increasing the quotas?

A: ICCAT has committed to rebuilding the western bluefin stock by next year and the eastern stock by 2022. The sensible way to accomplish that, consistent with ICCAT’s mandate, is to allow the stocks to continue to grow until recovery is confirmed and to continue management under existing plans until rebuilding is fully achieved. Quotas of 28,000 metric tons and 1,000 metric tons are consistent with these goals for eastern and western bluefin, respectively. 

Q: But won’t higher Atlantic bluefin quotas be good for fishermen?

A: Not necessarily. An analysis released this year shows that more tuna isn’t always better. In fact, when bluefin supply increases, as has been the case since 2015 thanks to rapid increases in the eastern bluefin quotas, prices for it and substitute species such as bigeye tuna suffer. For some products, such as fresh Atlantic bluefin and bigeye, prices fall so drastically that fishermen would actually lose money. And of course higher quotas mean heavier fishing, which could hurt fishermen in the long run by extending the time it takes for the stocks to recover.

Q: Would a strict catch limit help shortfin mako sharks rebuild?

A: According to the 2017 assessment, the north Atlantic stock of shortfin mako is overfished, and overfishing is occurring. This is one of the most vulnerable sharks caught in the ICCAT management area, and the assessment found that even with a complete ban on retention of sharks that are caught, the stock would have only a 54 percent chance of rebuilding by 2040. ICCAT should adopt a total ban on retention to at least give the northern shortfin mako a chance at recovery. And although the results on the southern stock are inconclusive, the fact that the species is so vulnerable, coupled with the possibility that overfishing is occurring, shows that managers must take a precautionary approach to prevent further decline.


A complete retention ban is the best way to promote recovery of the shortfin mako shark.

© iStock

Q: Has ICCAT eradicated illegal fishing in its waters?

A: The Commission has taken steps to reduce illegal fishing in recent years through stronger management and compliance practices and the 2016 implementation of the electronic bluefin tuna catch documentation system (eBCD), which helps track the trade of bluefin and prove that it has been caught lawfully. However, ICCAT’s scientists are concerned that illegal fishing is on the rise. Therefore, the Commission should ensure that all vessels are complying with vessel monitoring system requirements, increase accountability by requiring that all vessels fishing in ICCAT waters have International Maritime Organization numbers, and allow for additions to the Commission’s illegal fishing vessel list at any time so the most current information is available to flag States and authorities.

It is also important for ICCAT members to be transparent and make publicly available any information they have on potential illegal fishing in their waters, given that this activity can result in catch well above scientifically recommended levels. The European Union’s actions are critical here: With control of 59 percent of the eastern bluefin quota and a substantial amount of trade between its member states, the EU must implement the eBCD measure in full to minimize loopholes for those seeking to trade illicitly caught bluefin. 

Q: ICCAT battles every year over quota setting. What will it take to stop this?

A: Regional fisheries management organizations, including ICCAT, are beginning to move away from traditional management toward a system called harvest strategies. This method uses the available data on a fish stock to create frameworks and rules that member countries agree on in advance of decisions on quotas and other key issues. This year, we hope ICCAT will adopt a harvest strategy for northern albacore and work toward implementing the system on its other priority stocks as soon as possible.

ICCAT has made progress on improved, science-based management of stocks in recent years. Now it should build on this track record by fulfilling its mandate to conserve the valuable species it is charged with protecting.

Rachel Hopkins directs Pew’s global tuna conservation campaign, Jen Sawada directs the global shark conservation campaign, and Julie Janovsky directs the campaign to end illegal fishing.