Last December, the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission (IATTC), which is responsible for management of tropical tuna fisheries in the eastern Pacific Ocean that are worth $4.59 billion at the final point of sale, triggered international alarm after closing its annual meeting without agreeing on any rules for valuable skipjack, bigeye and yellowfin stocks.
That prompted immense public pressure, which forced the IATTC to call an emergency meeting and roll over an old, insufficient management measure—the minimal step needed to avoid leaving eastern Pacific tropical tuna fisheries completely unregulated. But since then, there has been little action to advance new, more ambitious governance.
When IATTC meets this year from 23 to 27 August, managers will have a chance to repair some of this reputational damage and, most importantly, put tuna stocks on a more sustainable path by agreeing to modernize its management approach and move on to other pressing issues, such as increasing transparency across its fisheries.
Long-term strategies for management of tropical tunas needed
Tropical tuna management has become more politicized in recent years, as evidenced by the contentious negotiations last year. The best way to avoid future failure to reach consensus and to sustainably manage tropical tunas is the adoption of long-term, science-based harvest strategies. These frameworks shift management away from short-term, annual quota negotiations by having managers and stakeholders pre-agree to their objectives for the fisheries and the actions they will take along the way in response to changes in stock status.
At this year’s meeting, IATTC staff will present a work plan to managers to get harvest strategies adopted for tropical tunas in the coming years, starting with bigeye. Managers should endorse this plan without delay and, in doing so, make time for the Commission to address other pressing responsibilities that have been neglected.
Increasing transparency throughout the supply chain would show international leadership
Those priorities must include improving monitoring of vessel activities at sea and oversight of catch offloading at port. By doing both of those things the Commission can bring its management measures more in line with other regional fisheries management organizations (RFMOs), improve sustainability of the fisheries and reduce the likelihood that illegally caught fish enter the market.
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic limited human observer coverage on fishing vessels, coverage in IATTC waters was below the 20% of fishing activity that its scientists recommend as the minimum threshold to ensure sustainability. But electronic monitoring (EM), which involves the use of computers, gear sensors and video cameras to monitor and record fishing activity, can help fill that gap. Recognizing the need for increased information, IATTC scientists have proposed a detailed workplan for developing a comprehensive EM program for its fisheries. IATTC should endorse that plan so that standards can be developed to augment human observer coverage and increase fishery managers’ awareness of what is happening at sea.
IATTC should also shine a light on transshipment, the at-sea transfer of catch to carrier vessels, which then take fish to port. Transshipment is a key—and usually legal—part of the seafood supply chain but it often occurs on the high seas where it’s difficult to monitor and where bad actors can more easily get away with illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing activity. IATTC’s existing transshipment management measures are woefully out of date, with many loopholes that allow for misreporting of catch, or even no reporting at all. Managers must come together to reform existing measures to increase oversight of this activity.
IATTC also lags other regional fishery management organizations (RFMOs) when it comes to port State measures that could prevent IUU fish from reaching the market. All Commission members should support the European Union’s proposal for adopting rules in line with existing best practices, such as the Port State Measures Agreement (PSMA). The proposal would require members to strengthen port controls to reduce the likelihood of illegally caught products being landed, in part by placing tighter regulations on foreign-flagged vessels seeking to enter and use ports. Port State measures in line with the PSMA have been proposed to IATTC multiple times in recent years. It is time for IATTC to align itself with other RFMOs and adopt these without hesitation.
Incidentally, retailers, wholesalers, suppliers and processors of tuna—through the Global Tuna Alliance—have also called on IATTC to improve sustainability of its fisheries through long-term management strategies and increased transparency throughout the supply chain.
IATTC has a large slate of items to discuss and adopt at this year’s meeting, and history has shown that many important issues often fall to the wayside, largely due to the contentious debates on tropical tuna management. In fact, the Commission has already scheduled a special session for October, likely because its leadership anticipates that deliberations on tropical tunas could still take up most of the regular meeting. But by committing to harvest strategies this month the Commission could prevent future stalemates and lead a movement towards openness and efficiency in fisheries management.
By advancing modern fisheries management, electronic monitoring, transshipment reform and port State measures this year, IATTC would position itself as a leader among RFMOs and show that it’s ready to bring eastern Pacific fisheries management into the 21st century.
Grantly Galland works on The Pew Charitable Trusts’ international fisheries project.