Bluefin tuna

The management of bluefin tuna fisheries is under the microscope once again. As the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) prepares to meet next week in Agadir, Morocco, for its 18th special meeting, environmental NGOs are urging the commission to err on the side of caution when setting new fishing quotas for 2013 and beyond.

ICCAT, one of five global regional fishery management organizations, has been heavily criticized for setting quotas too high, not following the advice of scientific consultants and caving into pressure from governments whose industries depend on the income from harvesting bluefin tuna. NGOs like the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and the Pew Environment Group on Thursday voiced their concerns about allowing bluefin (Thunnus thynnus) populations in the Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean Sea to rebuild.

“In 2009, ICCAT followed scientific advice [in setting quotas] for the first time,” said Amanda Nickson, director of Pew’s global tuna conservation campaign, during a media conference call on Thursday morning. “This year, with a new stock assessment, it will be important to see the impact of better decision making. The stock assessment indicated the possibility, maybe, of a glimmer of hope for recovery. But there’s a very high level of illegal fishing that has not been taken into account.”

Nickson estimated that illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing (IUU fishing) accounted for actual harvests of 62 percent above quota from 2008 to 2011. Susan Lieberman, Pew’s ICCAT delegation lead, wants ICCAT to mandate unique fishing vessel identifiers — or International Maritime Organization numbers — so that governments can better track illegal fishing, vessel by vessel, and have stronger port state measures to block illegally harvested fish.

“ICCAT has a mixed history. There have been serious declines, serious mismanagement,” said Lieberman. “They can turn it around, and we’re hoping to see evidence of that next week in Agadir.”

Up to 80 percent of the global bluefin catch ends up in Japan, where the fish often fetch astronomically high prices from sushi buyers. Lieberman said Japan, which is one of ICCAT’s 48 government-member parties, has been “supportive of listening to the science” and believes that Japan will be supportive of not increasing the quota. “We believe the market there does not want to be accused of importing illegal fish,” she added.

In WWF’s latest campaign, “Stop Bankrupting Our Oceans,” the group contends that Europe’s fisheries ministers have made poor decisions over the past 30 years that have led to overfishing and unsustainable pressure on tuna stocks.

WWF pushed for a decrease in 2010 bluefin tuna quotas from 32,000 metric tons (MT) to 12,900 MT, as well as minimum landing sizes, limiting the purse seine fishery to one month a year and a catch documentation scheme, among other measures.

WWF believes that momentum for sustainable East Atlantic and Mediterranean bluefin tuna fisheries is building and calls on ICCAT to keep recovery ambitions high. The group wants ICCAT to keep the total allowable catch at 12,900 MT for at least the next three years and to strengthen its current fishing capacity reduction plan.

“Big achievements are long in the making but in only an instant can be lost,” says Dr. Sergei Tudela, head of fisheries at WWF Mediterranean. “ICCAT scientists are clear this year that the fishing quotas must not increase to enable Atlantic bluefin tuna to fully recover sometime within the next decade. WWF calls on ICCAT Contracting Parties to stick to this recommendation.”

ICCAT is also responsible for shark fishery management and Pew hopes management plans will be implemented. Elizabeth Wilson, manager of Pew’s global shark conservation campaign, says 143 shark species are threatened or near threatened with extinction, but management measures are in place for “only a handful of them.”

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