Even in a year when policy negotiations are complicated by the COVID-19 pandemic, fisheries management bodies have opportunities to move forward on critical issues. To that end, the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission (IATTC) should advance efforts to improve monitoring of catch when it meets virtually Nov. 30 to Dec. 4. At this annual meeting, the IATTC will make management decisions that will influence the future of fisheries in the eastern Pacific Ocean, including those for Pacific bluefin and tropical tunas.
According to a new report from The Pew Charitable Trusts, tuna fisheries in the eastern Pacific were worth $5.1 billion at the final point of sale in 2018, with Pacific bluefin and the tropical tunas accounting for $4.8 billion of that—a clear demonstration of the economic importance of the two most valuable IATTC fisheries. Such high demand for tuna products can incentivize illegal and unreported fishing in the eastern Pacific.
This has highlighted the importance of monitoring fishing activity to ensure healthy and resilient fisheries. However, in an effort to limit the spread of the coronavirus, IATTC and several other regional fisheries management organizations (RFMOs) temporarily suspended or altered the requirement that fishing vessels have human observers onboard to monitor fishing activity. IATTC is exempting vessels from that requirement on a case-by-case basis if they are unable to have observers on board due to their government’s observer health and safety protocols. Even before these pandemic-related exemptions, IATTC’s human observer coverage was well below the 20% of fishing trips that the commission’s scientists recommend as the minimum needed to ensure fishery sustainability. That’s why IATTC, together with other RFMOs, should adopt more comprehensive electronic monitoring (EM) programs to enable it to more effectively monitor and manage fish stocks in the new normal.
EM involves the use of computers, gear sensors, and video cameras to monitor and record fishing activity in real time. Although human observers will always be needed for the acquisition of specific scientific information—for example, collection of tissue samples—supplementing them with EM would support IATTC’s research and stock assessments. EM would also ensure compliance with IATTC requirements without further risking observer safety or threatening vessels’ profitability.
Following a 2019 commitment, IATTC drafted a proposal for the development of minimum standards for EM that was reviewed at the Commission’s science meeting earlier this year. With the need for EM greater than ever—particularly with regards to the heavily fished tropical tunas and Pacific bluefin—IATTC should adopt a plan at its annual meeting that outlines the objectives and key elements for a comprehensive EM program. It should also hold a workshop on EM early next year to give members the time they need to finalize that program so it can be adopted at IATTC’s 2021 annual meeting.
Although the scale of the 2020 global health crisis has indeed been unprecedented, RFMOs must not allow the pandemic to derail their responsibilities to protect fisheries and the long-term viability of the fishing industry.
Grantly Galland, Macy Placide, and Esther Wozniak work on The Pew Charitable Trusts’ international fisheries program.