Op-ed: 2022 could be a banner year for sustainable tuna fisheries

Holly Koehler is the vice president of policy and outreach for the International Seafood Sustainability Foundation (ISSF).

Holly Koehler is the vice president of policy and outreach for the International Seafood Sustainability Foundation (ISSF).

While no doubt a challenging year for fisheries managers, 2021 brought some victories toward ensuring the long-term sustainable use of tuna fisheries. ISSF was gratified to see highly necessary protections for tuna stocks extended in both the Pacific Ocean and the Atlantic Ocean, for example.

Overall, though, it was another year of just stepwise progress. Minimal movement in the Indian Ocean for better protected stocks – especially yellowfin tuna – major misses on harvest strategies in the world’s largest tuna fishing grounds in the Western and Central Pacific Ocean (WCPO) and only slight gains in electronic monitoring and FAD management leave tuna regional fisheries management organizations (RFMOs) with a robust to-do list in 2022.

While we commence a third consecutive cycle of RFMO work and meetings impacted by the global pandemic, 2021 showed us that important decisions can be made, even in a virtual setting. Making progress when we are separated from one another, facing compressed schedules and difficult logistics of remote meetings, will demand dedicated conversations, negotiations, and more throughout the year – well before the meetings where decisions are made. We urge RFMO member-countries to begin this work now so that the RFMOs can take decisive action on the most pressing priorities this year.

Here are our areas of focus for 2022:

FAD Design and Management: 2021 was a year of spotty progress for better-designed and -managed FADs, so this topic leads our priorities again this year. Scientists and fishers have worked together for multiple years on the research and development of FADs that use no netting and that utilize use biodegradable materials. But RFMOs continue to lag in the adoption and implementation of these needed improvements.

Last year, the bright spots were in the Western and Central Pacific and Eastern Pacific Ocean, where fisheries managers took the strongest actions toward improved FAD designs and FAD management. We didn’t see the same developments in Atlantic and Indian ocean tuna fisheries, unfortunately.

2022 should be the year that RFMOs and fleets make greater strides in the transition to the use of FADs that are fully designed with the surrounding ocean environment in mind — including mitigating impacts on non-target marine animals and fragile ecosystems, as well as reducing marine plastic pollution. In addition to continuing to advance research on and pushing for the global use of more environmentally friendly FAD designs, ISSF will be working to ensure that RFMOs: increasingly adopt science-based FAD management measures including improvements in FAD design and construction; ensure strengthened compliance with FAD data-submission rules; and develop FAD ownership rules, marking guidelines, and recovery policies.

Harvest Strategies: All tuna RFMOs must accelerate their adoption of harvest strategies in 2022. Harvest strategies, which include target and limit reference points together with harvest control rules, provide pre-agreed rules for the management of fisheries resources and action to be taken in response to changes in species-specific stock status. Harvest strategies prevent endless negotiations that can lead to delays in protecting tuna stocks. And they are a critical element of achieving the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certification standard, a program that incentivizes sustainable fishing practices globally.

Tuna RFMOs have been discussing the development of harvest strategies for several years, and some have put in place components of harvest strategies or adopted harvest control rules for certain species. But this important work is nowhere near complete. Even worse, 2021 brought a setback when the annual meeting of the Western Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC) ended without taking decisions on critical elements that are needed for harvest strategies for bigeye and yellowfin tuna – putting these fisheries at risk of suspension of their MSC certifications.

It’s true that WCPFC agreement to hold a scientist-manager dialogue on harvest strategies this year and, in the Atlantic Ocean region, an agreement on a harvest strategy for North Atlantic albacore, were positive steps. But all tuna RFMOs need to significantly accelerate their pace in adopting comprehensive harvest strategies in 2022. The time for action is now.

Electronic Monitoring and Reporting: When it comes to monitoring, control and surveillance of fishing operations at sea, electronic monitoring (EM) and electronic reporting (ER) systems are proven, effective tools. EM/ER systems can remotely monitor vessel activity on the water; provide important scientific data in a timely manner; and independently verify reported catch and effort data. Unfortunately, no RFMOs have put in place electronic monitoring programs. COVID-19 has severely affected human observer coverage levels in tuna fisheries in all oceans, and, consequently, impacted the provision of scientific advice and assessments of compliance. If RFMOs had put in place EM and ER programs swiftly when these technologies became viable, these data would be more available now, and monitoring would be ongoing – despite the pandemic.

There was some headway made in this area last year. In the Atlantic and Indian Ocean fisheries, for example, managers created new electronic monitoring working groups at their annual meetings. While working groups are a necessary part of the process, they must produce concrete and actionable results to develop and implement EM and ER programs. In 2022, ISSF and our partners will advocate for more decisive actions by RFMOs to make EM and ER systems ubiquitous across global tuna fisheries.

Tuna Conservation: In 2021, RFMOs again took half-steps that make it difficult to declare success when it comes to tuna conservation. While Eastern Pacific Ocean tuna fisheries managers acted to safeguard stocks by adopting a new, enhanced tropical tuna measure, elsewhere, action was less remarkable. WCPO fisheries managers agreed to essentially roll over an existing tuna conservation measure for two more years. In the Atlantic, the existing tropical tuna measure was extended for one year with some modifications. And while fisheries managers in the Indian Ocean agreed on a new measure for at-risk yellowfin tuna, we remain cautious in our assessment of the success of this new measure; it is uncertain if the science-recommended reduction in yellowfin tuna catch will be achieved.

2022 must be a year where tuna management measures are not simply extended but strengthened to ensure they implement fully the scientific advice and are enforceable so to ensure the enduring sustainability of global tuna stocks. ISSF remains committed to working with all RFMO members to make this a reality.

As we begin a new year of stewardship of the world’s tuna fisheries, with the potential for continued virtual meetings and lack of in-person negotiation, ISSF is reinforcing high-priority asks for fisheries managers. In 2022, we recommit our efforts and those of our multi-sector stakeholders to reach beyond minimum action for the long-term protection and conservation of global tuna fisheries. We look forward to delivering on this shared pledge to move forward.

Photo courtesy of Holly Koehler


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