Atlantic Fishery Managers Have Big Opportunity to Improve Transparency and Prevent Illegal Fishing

Proposals before ICCAT would close loopholes, modernize Commission operations and boost sustainability

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Atlantic Fishery Managers Have Big Opportunity to Improve Transparency and Prevent Illegal Fishing
Atlantic Fishery Managers Have Big Opportunity to Improve Transparency and Prevent Illegal Fishing

Tuna fisheries in the Atlantic Ocean are worth billions of dollars each year, but for decades illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing has jeopardized their sustainability. All too often, due to a lack of vessel monitoring, loopholes in regulations and non-compliance with existing rules, authorities and fisheries managers have an incomplete picture of what is happening on the water.

That can and should change, starting with the 14-17 June intersessional meeting of the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT), which is responsible for fisheries management in the Atlantic. On the table at this meeting is a suite of proposals that could make ICCAT a more transparent body, lead to much-needed reforms across the problem areas noted above and help end IUU fishing. ICCAT governments should move swiftly to adopt each proposal. Here’s a look at some of them.

Reform management of at-sea transshipment and improve monitoring to protect fisheries health

Transshipment, the transfer of catch from a fishing vessel to a carrier ship at sea or in port, is a vital part of the seafood supply chain, and a practice used by many ICCAT fleets to reduce operational costs and maximize their fishing time. However, loopholes in transshipment management abound and, as a result, IUU activities, such as the laundering of tuna, swordfish, sharks or other marine wildlife, can occur undetected. A proposal submitted to ICCAT by the United States would remove many of those loopholes by addressing confusion surrounding the reporting requirements of transshipment data to Commission leadership, prohibiting transshipment involving vessels that are not flagged to ICCAT member States and requiring that location tracking information of vessels engaged in transshipment be shared directly with the Commission’s professional staff. These reforms would strengthen transshipment oversight and management, and make it less likely that illegally caught fish makes its way to consumers’ plates.

This meeting also presents ICCAT with an opportunity to make progress towards improving at-sea monitoring of fisheries. Electronic monitoring, which uses computers, sensors and video cameras to record catch and vessel activity, provides data that are critical for accurate scientific assessments and effective management measures. In 2019, ICCAT committed to develop minimum standards for an electronic monitoring program by 2021.  At the June meeting, members must solidify their commitment to meet this deadline by agreeing on a process that will lead to draft standards by the end of the year.

Close loopholes to prevent illegal activities at sea

Several other proposals before the Commission would further align ICCAT with other regional fisheries management organizations (RFMOs) that are moving to increase transparency of the fishing operations they oversee. A proposal from the European Union calls for stronger measures to help prevent ICCAT members and their nationals, or natural or legal persons, from engaging in or benefiting from IUU fishing, regardless of where their vessels are flagged.  In a related proposal from the United States, vessels that aren’t flagged to an ICCAT member State would be labeled an illegal operator and be prevented from fishing in ICCAT waters, as well as from offloading any catch at port.

Finally, ICCAT should adopt an EU proposal to require an International Maritime Organization (IMO) number on all vessels eligible to be assigned one under IMO rules. Many other RFMOs have already done this. IMO numbers, which the international fisheries community considers the gold standard for unique and permanent vessel identification, are free to vessel owners and increase the transparency of operations, which in turn can help authorities distinguish the good actors from the bad.

Each proposal to be discussed at this upcoming meeting would increase the amount of information that ICCAT has on the fisheries it manages and help reduce illegal activity. This would level the playing field for legal operators and reduce the likelihood that IUU fishing will contribute to stock declines. Swift adoption of all proposals would also better enable ICCAT to achieve and maintain sustainable fisheries and improve stakeholders’ trust in the Commission.

Grantly Galland works on The Pew Charitable Trusts’ international fisheries project.

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