The International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) meeting in Cairo, Egypt has come to a close, with a mix of conservation and management progress and status quo.
Ahead of the meeting, which ran from 13 to 20 November, 2023, NGOs called for the commission to establish strategies to rebuild Atlantic bigeye tuna stock, maintain yellowfin tuna stocks within the total allowable catch (TAC), and establish a management procedure for skipjack tuna. On all of those measures, ICCAT rolled over the management it was already using, effectively delaying any changes in management for another year.
In 2024, the TAC for bigeye will remain 62,000 metric tons (MT), and the TAC for yellowfin will remain at 110,000 MT. A restriction on fish-aggregation devices will also be rolled over into 2024.
The RFMO also failed to take any direct action on the management of North Atlantic swordfish. NGOs like The Pew Charitable Trusts have been pushing ICCAT to adopt a harvest strategy for the species focusing on long-term objectives – which would give management of the species pre-determined rules that can kick in based on changes to the stock.
Instead, the commission said it would review various candidate management procedures for the stock in 2024, and then select one that it would apply to the TAC in 2025 at the earliest.
The delays were met with criticism from the NGOs who were calling for ICCAT to take action on tuna and swordfish stocks.
“After several years of positive progress, ICCAT could have continued its momentum, but instead failed to take expected actions to modernize management for some of its most valuable fisheries,” The Pew Charitable Trusts International Fisheries Team Manager Esther Wozniak said in a release. “Now, it will be another year until governments consider science-based, precautionary measures for North Atlantic swordfish and Western Atlantic skipjack tuna.”
Despite the lack of action on tuna and swordfish, ICCAT took action on several species conservation measures. The commission adopted three new protection measures for whales, dolphins, porpoises, whale sharks, and mobulid rays being caught in ICCAT-regulated waters. The new rules forbid any of the prohibited species from being retained on board, transshipped, or landed in whole or part.
The Shark League applauded the measures, but criticized Japan’s insistence on delaying their implementation by requiring a review of the measures on rays and whale sharks in 2024.
“After highlighting that endangered Atlantic mantas, devil rays, and whale sharks lack critical high seas Atlantic fisheries safeguards, we welcome countries’ interest in closing these gaps,” Sharks Advocates International President Sonja Fordham said in a release. “We are confident that ICCAT scientists will promptly confirm the exceptional vulnerability of these animals and underscore their previous advice that such species warrant precautionary conservation, thereby clearing the way for protections to take effect without further delay.”
The commission also reduced the quota for Atlantic blue shark, the most common shark species caught in the area ICCAT manages. The species underwent a full scientific stock assessment in 2023, and based on the results the commission decided to reduce the annual TAC for North Atlantic blue shark by 16.4 percent to 32,689 MT, and the southern stock by 4.2 percent to 27,711 MT. The commission also tasked the scientific committee with establishing a roadmap for developing a management strategy evaluation framework “including inter alia candidate harvest control rules” by 2025.
The quota reduction followed an effort from the United Kingdom, which pushed for the cuts to quotas in both regions.
“We thank the U.K. for their commitment to maximizing the conservation effect of the blue shark compromise measures, that – in the end – do represent steps in the right direction,” Shark Trust Conservation Director Ali Hood said.
The commission also adopted recommendations for general standards that apply across all the fisheries it manages, including program requirements for the use of electronic monitoring systems (EMS) in its fisheries.
ICCAT also made amendments to its existing port inspections and illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) vessel-listing measures, and adopted a resolution on labor principles that it said will result safer working environments for employees onboard fishing vessels operating in ICCAT-regulated waters.
Wozniak said ICCAT fell short by not addressing tuna and swordfish quota management reforms, and by not adopting a work plan to consider climate change in its management measures.
“Given that so many ICCAT members have pledged action to prevent biodiversity loss and protect ocean ecosystems, the lack of progress on tuna, swordfish, and climate change overshadow the advances that were made,” Wozniak said.
Photo courtesy of the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas