To Save Depleted Atlantic Tunas, ICCAT Must Act Now

Lower catch limits, science-based harvest strategies will help species recover

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To Save Depleted Atlantic Tunas, ICCAT Must Act Now
Atlantic bigeye tuna
Despite severe depletion of Atlantic bigeye tuna, governments have done little to stem overfishing of the stock.
Paulo Oliveira

The daunting challenge that Atlantic Ocean managers face to help highly depleted Atlantic bigeye tuna recover is largely self-inflicted. At its 2018 annual meeting, the 52-government International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) failed to adopt a recovery plan for Atlantic bigeye despite clear, strong advice from the commission’s scientists on the need to immediately and significantly reduce catch and address the growing mortality of juveniles associated with fishing on fish aggregating devices. The refusal to adopt a recovery plan has substantial consequences for this valuable stock: According to ICCAT’s own scientists, the Atlantic bigeye population is now approximately 60 times more likely to collapse than to recover within 15 years.

ICCAT member governments must try yet again to reach agreement on bigeye management at the commission’s annual meeting in November. This will not be easy. Managers face other unfinished business from last year, including reaching consensus on management of blue marlin, and must also address new science for yellowfin tuna, white marlin, and shortfin mako sharks.

With this amount of serious work ahead, ICCAT members need to begin negotiating—formally or informally—now, well ahead of the annual meeting. That is the only viable path to finding solutions to stop the excessive catch of Atlantic bigeye and Atlantic yellowfin. Failure to achieve that will essentially return ICCAT to 2008, when an independent review referred to the commission as an “international disgrace” and rampant illegal fishing and overfishing of Atlantic bluefin led to a serious push for an international trade ban. Avoiding this regression will require sacrifices from all fishing fleets, regardless of their history, gear used, or home port.

The good news is that a solution exists for better managing tunas, marlins, swordfish, and other species for which ICCAT is responsible. Harvest strategies—or management procedures—allow scientists, managers, and stakeholders to work together to design, test, and implement measures that automatically change allowable catch levels based on the health of fish populations. When harvest strategies are successfully implemented, fisheries management is less bogged down in the setting of annual fishing limits and instead is based on the newest, best-available science. ICCAT has committed to transitioning to harvest strategies and has adopted one for North Atlantic albacore. Harvest strategies development is well underway for Atlantic bluefin tuna and North Atlantic swordfish.

Unfortunately, similar development for tropical tunas is on hold, even though ICCAT members continue to overfish these stocks. The commission therefore must start a rapid transition to harvest strategies for bigeye and yellowfin and, while waiting for those procedures to be developed, should lower catch limits and take steps to ensure that they are respected. That will put bigeye and yellowfin on the path to sustainability. Recovery of these populations will take work and tough negotiations—which need to start now.

Grantly Galland is an officer with The Pew Charitable Trusts’ global tuna conservation project.

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The Story of Atlantic Bigeye Tuna

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Issue Brief

Everything that Atlantic bigeye tuna (Thunnus obesus) do, they do with speed. These tuna reach sexual maturity in just two to three years and can grow in that time from small enough to swim through the eye of a needle to more than 400 pounds. They are formidable predators with the ability to outmaneuver, outswim, and eat just about anything that they can fit in their mouths. Their considerable size, however, makes them primary targets for tuna fishing fleets around the world.


Harvest Strategies

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A novel approach, known as “harvest strategies” or “management procedures,” is emerging as the next innovation in fisheries management.