RFMOs’ consensus-based decision-making system failing to provide sustainable fisheries management

Published on
June 20, 2022
Tuna being caught in a fishing net.

Regional fisheries management organizations (RFMOs) play an important, though sometimes opaque, role in fisheries management and governance. These international organizations control fishing quotas and adopt and manage protective measures in geographical areas of the ocean or for specific species.

This article is the third in a four-part series covering the role regional fisheries management organizations in the global seafood trade. The series is intended to help seafood companies better understand the role and impact of RFMOs and the opportunities to engage with those bodies. The first article introduced the organizations as a whole and the second focused on tuna RFMOs in the Pacific Ocean.

The Pacific Ocean accounts for a majority of the tuna catch worldwide, resulting in much of the debate over tuna management being focused on the Pacific and its two tuna-focused RFMOs. Outside the Pacific, tuna in the Atlantic and Indian oceans are managed by three RFMOs: the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT), the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission (IOTC), and the Commission for the Conservation of Southern Bluefin Tuna (CCSBT).

As a species-specific tuna RFMO, CCSBT has eight members and has the unique objective of managing the species of southern bluefin tuna and not a geographical area. The geographical range of this RFMO intersects with the IOTCC, ICCAT, and Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission, due to the migratory status of the species. Bluefin tuna tend to be the most-expensive tuna globally, especially as global demand continues to grow for bluefin sashimi.

Recently, a resolution was proposed that the CCSBT use its catch-documentation scheme to document all shipments of southern bluefin tuna catch, with the exception of fish parts other than meat – such as fins, head, eyes, roe, guts, and tails. The CCSBT recently  moved to require its members to follow ecological related species measures of other relevant tuna RFMOs in order to protect certain bycatch and threatened species, including sea turtles, sharks, and seabirds.

Additionally, the CCSBT is working to update its compliance policy guidelines regarding minimum performance requirements for CCSBT obligations and its punishment process for non-compliance.

The ICCAT is an intergovernmental fishery organization responsible for conservation of tuna and tuna-like species in the Atlantic Ocean and adjacent seas. With 52 members and covering the whole of the Atlantic Ocean, the RFMO has several major projects it’s working on, including the Atlantic Wide Research Program for Bluefin Tuna (GBYP) – which aims to collect data on key biological and ecological processes and determine the stock status of the Atlantic bluefin tuna – and the Enhanced Program for Billfish Research (EPBR), which is developing a more-detailed understanding of billfish populations in the Atlantic, including studying age, growth, and catch status, fed by data collected through a recently expanded tagging program. Additionally, ICCAT’s Small Tunas Year Program (SMTYP) collects historical data on small tunas such as bullet tuna, blackfin tuna, Atlantic bonito, and a number of other species, and its Shark Research and Data Collection Program (SRDCP) collects data on age, growth, reproduction, movements, habitat use, and stock boundaries of shortfin mako, porbeagle, silky oceanic whitetip, and hammerhead sharks in the Atlantic Ocean.

Many stakeholders in the tuna sector are calling for better pre-agreed, science-based decisions for stability in the tuna supply chain. One of Europe’s biggest stakeholders, Milan, Italy-based Bolton Food Group, has called for ICCAT to approve clear rules governing tuna fishing and tuna fishers. Bolton Sustainable Development Manager Héctor Fernández discussed these calls for action in a webinar co-hosted by The Pew Charitable Trusts, Global Tuna Alliance (GTA), Tuna Protection Alliance (TUPA), and HarvestStrategies.Org, urging implementation of science-based harvest strategies for the stocks the ICCAT manages, including Atlantic bluefin tuna.

“[It] is linked to having harvest control strategies instead of a reactive response approach,” Fernández said. “No management can be based on reaction; it must be anticipated. To manage is to foresee. And if you don’t have harvest strategies in place, what’s going to trigger the decision-making process in the RFMOs – a catastrophe?”

Fernández said ICCAT should also introduce specific indicators and reference points for determining stock abundance in order to achieve effectiveness from an operational perspective.

“What’s very important is that when we are not on target, the response is automatic. And rather than meeting to try and find consensus on difficult decisions and running the risk of being irrational, we have already foreseen how to act and what limitations need to be applied when something does happen,” he said.

Global Tuna Alliance Executive Director Tom Pickerell said ICCAT and other RFMOs need to do more to ensure tuna stocks are sustainably managed.

“The stocks are OK, but the management is lacking, and that’s what’s holding these fisheries back,” Pickerell said. “Most, if not all, seafood supply-chain companies are looking beyond absolute numbers of fish. It’s all well and good having a healthy stock today, but will we have it tomorrow? That’s not guaranteed if you don’t have robust management in place.”

Beyond the Atlantic Ocean, the Indian Ocean accounts for over 14 percent of global wild-caught fish, yet the region faces issues of multiple stocks being overfished, Pickerell said.

The IOTC, which has 30 members, covers conservation and management of tuna and tuna-like species in the Indian Ocean, which is home to the second-largest tuna fishery in the world. The IOTC is in the process of implementing several projects geared at attaining better management of the tuna fisheries over which it has jurisdiction, and is working to improve the collection of biological information on four principal species of tuna: bigeye, yellowfin, skipjack, and swordfish.

The IOTC has also announced a plan to implement an observer scheme that includes a training program for field observers and coordinators, with the goal of improving the capacity of its current observers and train new observers and national bodies to collect high-quality data from member fisheries. Six member countries are participating including Indonesia, I.R. Iran, Mauritius, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Tanzania. The Indian Ocean Key Tuna Species Management Procedure Development is another large project of focus for the IOTC. And it is adopting a management strategy evaluation procedure, which is a simulation framework to design, test, and select management procedures – harvest strategies in particular – against specific objectives, specifically management of key tuna species in the geographic areas the IOTC oversees.

However, Hamish Walker, the chief operating officer of Denver, Colorado, U.S.A.-based Seattle Fish Company, said the IOTC has not yet taken adequate steps to prevent overfishing of tuna in the Indian Ocean. Indian Ocean yellowfin tuna stocks have been deemed overfished, and a proposal to initiate a rebuilding plan was objected to by six countries. This failure to implement a rebuilding plan has implications for long-term assured supply, Walker said.

“The Global Tuna Alliance is engaging with IOTC at the moment to really influence what the new quotas should be. We were talking about needing a good supply of tuna but we’re actually advocating for a very significant reduction in quota again, so that we’ve got a long-term supply. It’s not just about next year or the year after,” he said.

Though tuna RFMOs have developed projects to further their sustainability efforts, many players in the industry and NGOs recognize there are gaps in the RFMO management, Walker said. But he said collaborations such as the Global Tuna Alliance are aiming to drive change within the RFMOs through arguments centered around market demand.

Pickerell said the Global NGO Tuna Forum, a collaborative project between several non-governmental organizations, has brought NGOs together to align on the advice they were giving the market.

“So rather than 10 different NGOs asking the same market players, such as Walmart and Tesco, to do 10 slightly different things, we are agreeing on set advice, so they’re [market players] only receive one collective demand,” Pickerell said. “One of the things we are doing at the moment, is [pushing RFMOs [to] improve, obviously with a focus on tuna RFMOs, and we’ve got a huge list of things they can do.”

Photo courtesy of Aymeric Bein/Shutterstock

Contributing editor/Reporting from Hawaii, U.S.A.

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