For most people, the mention of tuna will prompt mental images of canned tuna, sushi or a school of speedy fish flashing through open water. Together, those examples help illustrate tuna’s enormous cultural, ecological and $40 billion-a-year value to the global economy.
To promote sustainable, well-managed tuna fisheries, the United Nations in 2017 adopted May 2 as World Tuna Day. And although threats such as overfishing and illegal fishing persist, fishery managers have made significant progress toward United Nations goals.
Here are some of the milestones achieved since 2017:
1. United Nations Commits to Transshipment Reform
In July 2018, the 114 member Governments of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization’s Committee on Fisheries (COFI) agreed to develop international best practices for transshipment, which is the transfer of catch from a fishing vessel to a carrier vessel and is a key part of the tuna supply chain, but one with little oversight. COFI can adopt these guidelines in September 2022, an action that would set the stage for much-needed reforms by regional fishery management organizations (RFMOs).
2. Atlantic RFMO Increases Transparency of Activity on Fishing Vessels
To help fishery managers know more about what occurs on vessels, the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) in 2019 doubled the requirement for observer coverage on longline vessels from 5% to 10%—the highest required coverage for tropical tuna and billfish fisheries among RFMOs. But it is only a start, as 10% falls short of levels required to carry out science or assess compliance with ICCAT regulations.
3. New Protections for Blue Sharks
Also in 2019, ICCAT set a quota for blue sharks, becoming the first tuna management body to adopt a catch limit for a shark or ray species. Sharks and rays, which play important roles in marine ecosystems, are often caught inadvertently in tuna fisheries.
4. Catch of Threatened Rays Prohibited in Indo-Pacific
In 2019, the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC) and the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission (IOTC) adopted new protections for threatened manta and mobula rays, which are vulnerable to overfishing and are caught as bycatch by purse seine and longline vessels targeting tuna. Now, capture and retention of these species is prohibited across the entire Indo-Pacific Region.
5. New Online Tool Increases Transparency of At-Sea Transshipment
In July 2020, the Pew Charitable Trusts and Global Fishing Watch launched the Carrier Vessel Portal, which uses satellite data, machine learning technology and information provided by RFMOs to identify and display potential transshipment activity in near real time—giving regulators and the public the ability to see the full extent of transshipment across the globe for the first time.
6. All Tuna RFMOs Follow Port State Measures Agreement
After 10 years of negotiations, the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission (IATTC) in 2021 adopted minimum standards for vessel inspections in ports in the eastern Pacific—making it the last of the five tuna RFMOs to adopt port State measures to lower the risk of illegally sourced fish reaching the market.
7. Stronger Rules for Transshipment in the Atlantic
At its November 2021 meeting, ICCAT adopted plans to strengthen rules and increase oversight of transshipment. This is the strongest such measure adopted by any tuna RFMO and includes some of the best practices for transshipment identified by United Nations experts (see No. 1 above). This sets the stage for other RFMOs to improve transshipment management.
8. RFMO Agrees to Major Recovery Plan for North Atlantic Shortfin Mako Sharks
At the same meeting, ICCAT agreed to a recovery plan for endangered north Atlantic shortfin mako sharks, which have been overfished—and in decline—for decades. It will take as much as half a century for the population to recover, but this agreement is a critical step forward.
9. First-Ever Harvest Strategy Put in Place for an Atlantic Tuna
At that session, ICCAT also adopted a first-of-its-kind management approach for northern albacore. Called a harvest strategy, this method includes a set of pre-agreed rules that will automate ICCAT’s adoption of future catch limits for northern albacore based on science rather than on annual quota negotiations. Limits may be adjusted along the way based on performance. Harvest strategies offer a model for a sustainable future for all tunas. This move also clears the way for adoption of harvest strategies for several additional Atlantic species, including Atlantic bluefin in 2022 and north Atlantic swordfish in 2023.
10. New Requirements on Common Fish-Attracting Method in Pacific
Fish aggregating devices (FADs) are raft-like objects—some sophisticated, others crudely assembled—that fishers use to attract tuna and make it easier for purse seine nets to scoop up vast amounts of fish in one set. This results in a lot of bycatch and marine debris, because FADs are often abandoned at sea after use. In 2020, the eight Pacific Island countries that control the world’s largest purse seine fishery endorsed a treaty to better track and manage FAD use. And at the end of 2021, WCPFC agreed to require purse seine vessels to use non-entangling FADs, making it the fourth tuna RFMO to ban FADs that can inadvertently catch non-target wildlife.
Since the 2017 launch of World Tuna Day, fishery managers have taken needed steps to increase transparency and accountability of the fisheries they manage and the decisions they make. RFMOs must build on this progress by further developing harvest strategies, strengthening oversight of fishing activities and adopting more effective compliance processes. To veer off course now would risk losing these important gains.
Rachel Hopkins is a project director for Pew’s international fisheries project.