What happens to dwindling marine populations, such as Pacific bluefin tuna, when international fishery managers fail to follow best practices and clear scientific advice several years in a row? We may soon find out in the eastern Pacific Ocean.
A weeklong meeting of the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission (IATTC) in La Jolla, California, ended July 1 with minimal progress on urgently needed efforts to protect tuna and shark populations. That’s despite the fact that the commission performance review, its first, highlighted the immediate need to institute measures to protect such species.
Although commission members reached consensus on several measures, their actions were not nearly enough to end overfishing or curb damage to critical marine ecosystems, let alone root out illegal fishing.
Although the Pacific bluefin tuna population is hovering near historic lows and fleet capacity in the eastern Pacific is rapidly increasing, the commission deferred action on all tuna management measures, delaying discussion until a special meeting in October. The details of that meeting are still being worked out, but the lack of progress at the recent session indicates that a positive outcome appears unlikely without significant improvement in the political will to act. This delay, as Pacific bluefin are being fished at three times the sustainable rate, underscores the growing need for more urgent action, such as a basinwide moratorium on commercial fishing for Pacific bluefin.
Members did adopt interim harvest control rules for bigeye, yellowfin, and skipjack tuna. Still, the commission remains well behind other tuna regional fishery management organizations in the development of these modern-day management strategies.
The IATTC made some progress on shark protections. Members agreed to a U.S. proposal to ban shark lines, which are used to target sharks from longline fishing vessels. The measure also requires development of safe release guidelines as well as a work plan for completing full stock assessments for silky and hammerhead sharks.
The commission did pass a measure proposed by Central American governments to address the unsustainable catch of silky sharks, but it is likely to have little impact. That’s because the approach is not precautionary and fails to take into account all available peer-reviewed science. With the effect expected to be minimal, governments still need to add silky sharks to Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) at the Conference of the Parties in September. That listing would ensure that continued trade in silky sharks is legal and sustainable.
Now that the U.N. Port State Measures Agreement (PSMA) has entered into force, momentum continues to build for efforts at the world’s ports to combat illegal fishing. At this meeting however, the IATTC missed another opportunity to act.
Commission members have spent seven years discussing a proposal on regional minimum standards for port inspections with no resolution. While some member governments have ratified the PSMA, the IATTC has not agreed to take even the most basic actions to reduce illegal fishing of species under its jurisdiction.
The limited progress on several issues at the recent meeting was the result of hard work on the part of governments and advocates. Still, as the performance review notes, the IATTC has much work to do. Members should take the review seriously. They need to develop the recommended five-year strategic plan, provide training on fisheries management principles, improve the integrity of the Scientific Advisory Committee’s report to the commission, and collaborate with the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission on stock assessments.
These needed changes still wouldn’t make a difference overnight, but the future of these fisheries depends on a concerted effort by all stakeholders to do better in the eastern Pacific.
Elizabeth Wilson directs international ocean policy work for The Pew Charitable Trusts.