Fisheries Managers Should Promote Solutions That Ease Debates Over Harvest Limits

Science-based management procedures help ensure sustainable catch levels, healthy stocks

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Fisheries Managers Should Promote Solutions That Ease Debates Over Harvest Limits
large school of mackere
Paul Cowell Getty Images

Regional fisheries management organizations (RFMOs) often set an annual catch limit across an entire fishery, and with billions of dollars of tuna and other species at stake, member governments often are under pressure to maximize their industry’s share of this catch. For this reason, allocation—which caps how much fish a country can catch—is one of the most sensitive and time-consuming parts of the fisheries management process. Some fisheries even have dozens of governments vying for a piece of the pie, as is the case with yellowfin tuna in the Indian Ocean. And as years of collective overfishing continue to deplete the population, the overall pie gets smaller. As a result, governments end up spending many negotiation days, and in some cases even years, on debates over allocation, with little time left for negotiating measures that support their core commitments to sustainable management. Even worse, sometimes these negotiations get so stuck that catch shares allocated end up exceeding whatever limit is in place.

But there is a better, smarter way forward. Harvest strategies, or management procedures, are science-based fisheries management plans that prioritize long-term objectives instead of the short-term, yearly negotiations most RFMOs currently use. By agreeing to a framework for a fishery in advance, including a mechanism for setting the level of catch allowed based on the health of a stock, RFMOs can avoid spending days on determining total catch, and use time in their annual meetings to finally resolve long-standing allocation disputes.

When allocation debates stall conservation needs

The need for harvest strategies has been proved time and again across multiple fisheries and regions of the ocean. In the Indian Ocean, tropical tunas, like bigeye, yellowfin, and skipjack, are highly sought after by dozens of countries with different economic and social needs. The Indian Ocean Tuna Commission responsible for these fisheries has had dedicated allocation negotiations for more than a decade, but almost every year some parties leave unsatisfied. Even worse, because allocation talks have effectively stalled, the Commission has failed to agree on an effective rebuilding plan for yellowfin, which has been overfished since 2015; or on an implementable measure on skipjack, which has had actual catches well above the limits set by managers. The time taken up by concern over allocation eats into any negotiations on catch levels, leaving yellowfin and skipjack without sufficient management measures in place.

And allocation struggles aren’t just happening at the five tuna RFMOs. In areas governed by the North-East Atlantic Fisheries Commission, disputes among members over Atlantic mackerel shares have for several years stalled efforts to secure the long-term sustainability of the stock. For the past decade, the sum of individual catches has been above the scientific advice because members, despite lengthy discussions on how catches should be shared, failed to reach a comprehensive sharing agreement. If the recent downward trajectory of mackerel stock continues, it will likely trigger further cuts in catches and create even more contention in the allocation discussions. And despite a renewed impetus to settle allocation disputes around mackerel and other species in 2022, there is a risk that States will again fail to make real progress. While some countries are eager to move forward on a harvest strategy, some Coastal States have advocated for first resolving allocation disputes, no matter how long that may take.

More transparent decision-making could resolve allocation debates

Harvest strategies won’t eliminate allocation discussions, but they can free up time for talks on that and other important management decisions. As we wrote in a peer-reviewed article for Marine Policy, by automating decision-making and basing total catch on scientifically sound frameworks, governments can spend more time negotiating their allotment of this catch. Secondly, harvest strategies will also allow more time to be spent on other pressing management issues such as increasing the use of electronic monitoring and revising rules around transshipment management and compliance.

Perhaps most importantly, by moving towards harvest strategies, managers will make allocation decisions with the benefit of more information about the health of a fish stock and fishery. Mapping future catch based on long-term projections makes everything more predictable, and rather than boom-bust cycles in which RFMOs allow countries to overfish and then are forced to negotiate catch cuts to rebuild stocks, every modification to a catch limit can be made with the knowledge that it is sustainable.

RFMOs have been working towards harvest strategies for years now, but many major stocks still need these plans in place. They aren’t just good for fisheries; they’re good for streamlining all negotiations and giving much-needed time to the many pressing issues facing RFMOs. It’s time for harvest strategies to be put in place across the ocean.

Glen Holmes is an officer with The Pew Charitable Trusts’ international fisheries project and Shana Miller is a project director working on international fisheries conservation for The Ocean Foundation.