Eastern Pacific Fisheries Body Must Work Through Impasse on Tropical Tuna Management

‘Extraordinary session’ offers IATTC chance to honor science on policy for fish aggregating devices

Eastern Pacific Fisheries Body Must Work Through Impasse on Tropical Tuna Management
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Purse-seine fishing vessel raises a large catch.
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When the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission (IATTC) meets virtually, 7-10 June, for an extraordinary session, it’s imperative that it make progress on difficult issues that have threatened its ability to complete its most basic duty: managing skipjack, bigeye, and yellowfin tuna fisheries in the eastern Pacific Ocean.

Last December, it was widely reported that a dispute among IATTC member governments on the management of fish aggregating devices (FADs)—satellite-tracked floats designed to attract fish and improve fishing efficiency—nearly led to disaster. IATTC’s regular meeting ended without adoption of a management mechanism for tropical tuna fisheries, meaning that starting Jan. 1, there would have been a fishing free-for-all in the eastern Pacific. Fortunately, and due in part to pressure from civil society, just before the end of the year, the Commission held an extraordinary meeting—IATTC’s term for any session held outside the normal annual schedule—and agreed to roll over the 2020 regulations into the 2021 fishing season. But IATTC reached that agreement only after securing a commitment from all members for a second extraordinary meeting to specifically address the management of FADs.

That meeting, scheduled for next week, is critical for two reasons. First, FAD management is a contentious topic at IATTC and other regional forums because not all fishing fleets rely on this specific gear, and because FAD fishing is widely known to lead to high amounts of bycatch of immature bigeye tuna, one of the most vulnerable tuna populations in the eastern Pacific. Catching too many juveniles of any species threatens the population and reduces the productivity of fisheries. Preventing overfishing of bigeye requires careful management of FAD use, which often creates tensions across the eastern Pacific because the measures do not apply equally to all fleets.

This situation threatens not only the future of bigeye tuna fisheries, but it can make IATTC meetings difficult and prevent timely discussion of other pressing Commission business. That’s the other reason this special meeting, dedicated exclusively to FAD management, is so important. By making progress on FADs next week, IATTC would free up the necessary time for several other important topics—from electronic monitoring of fisheries and transshipment reform to combatting illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing—to be discussed at the Commission’s annual meeting in August.

It should be noted that IATTC scientists have called for better FAD management for several years, including at the May meeting of its scientific advisory committee. So, adopting new measures would also align with the best available scientific advice.

Today, it’s remarkable that skipjack, bigeye, and yellowfin management measures are in place only because of an 11th-hour deal to roll over policies that scientists had warned weren’t strong enough. Having had six months to negotiate a solution, another rollover of this inadequate measure should be off the table. Instead, IATTC should use this opportunity to adopt new FAD management that is in line with scientific advice, and should do so quickly to leave time for action on other critical issues. Failure to move forward now could leave tuna fisheries worth billions of dollars each year in jeopardy.

Grantly Galland is an officer with The Pew Charitable Trusts’ international fisheries project.

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