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An Atlantic Ocean Tuna Crisis: power-plays, bigeye at risk, and coastal communities stepping up

Yaiza Dronkers reflects on a recent report that raises serious concerns about the future of the Atlantic Ocean’s most valuable tuna fishery

Most people don’t realise that the bluefin tuna is not the most valuable tuna for fisheries in the Atlantic. That distinction in fact goes to the less-widely known bigeye tuna – bluefin's smaller “cousin”. A highly migratory fast predator, bigeye can reach an impressive length of 2.5 metres and weight up to 210 kg, which is bigger than the average adult African lion. Its considerable size and much appreciated quality in sushi markets makes bigeye a hugely valuable commercial species, generating over US$1bn from catches in the Atlantic region alone.

Management of the forgotten fish

While the controversial overfishing of bluefin tuna has received considerable attention in recent years, bigeye tuna has got somewhat forgotten along the way. While industrial fishing pressure for bigeye has mounted, management has been slow to respond. Consequently numbers have spiraled downwards. At current fishing levels, the probability of the stock experiencing a complete crash in the next 15 years is around 60%. Not only would this be a tragedy for such a magnificent marine species and the role it plays in the ecosystem, but it spells disaster for coastal fishing communities across the Atlantic whose economies depend on the fishery.

Unfortunately, the condition of this tuna population comes as no surprise. A stock assessment performed in 2015 by fishery scientists concluded that bigeye tuna was overfished and current fishing rates were unsustainable (overfishing was occurring). As a result, fishery managers decided to limit catches, however, the chosen quota had only  a 49% chance of achieving bigeye recovery by 2028 (less than a coin flip!). In more recent years, the total bigeye catches have significantly exceeded the limit and the newly released stock assessment paints an even more dire picture. In fact, at current catch levels, the probability of recovering the stock to sustainable levels by 2033 (15 year projection) is 1%. 

The current management regime has not been able to limit catches due to under-reporting of some fleets and through the exploitation of obvious loopholes by industrial fleets. As a result, the stock is in extremely poor condition and serious cuts must be made to avoid the fishery’s collapse.

This brings us to a delicate issue. While catches should undoubtedly be reduced, who will bare the cost?

How catch methods affect stocks

Adult fish are primarily caught by handline and longline, and receive the highest price. However, it’s the large increases in catches of small bigeye tuna by the purse seine vessels using fish aggregating devices (FADs) that has driven the decline of the fishery’s health. For years, scientists have been calling on ICCAT to specifically reduce catches by purse seine fishing around FADs with little success.

Not only are enormous amounts of small bigeye caught in the purse seine FAD fishery, but many endangered, threatened and protected species (ETPs) get caught or entangled in the FADs as well. Moreover, drifting FADs significantly contribute to marine litter, and cause damage to – among other things – vulnerable marine habitats like coral reefs. While FAD restrictions exist, they have not been proven to limit catches. Thus, managers should not only consider the total number of FADs used, but the amount of fishing allowed on FADs as well.

Bigeye supports the livelihoods of coastal communities

Pole-and-line and handline fisheries like those from the Azores, the Canary Islands, and the Southern Atlantic island St Helena, often depend heavily on bigeye tuna for their livelihoods. These fisheries are part of coastal fishing communities that have not been driving overfishing and are more sensitive and limited because of their isolated nature and limited economies. The effects of a shrinking tuna population have serious consequences for such regions; their coastal fishers are already catching fewer fish. Not surprisingly, they are both worried and furious.

Influencing the decision making process

For the past year, I have been in close contact with the one-by-one tuna fishing sector in the Canary Islands, one of the many insufficiently represented voices in the realm of Atlantic Ocean tuna fisheries. Just like in the Azores, its fishers are extremely worried by the reduced bigeye catches, as it’s a primary source of income that supports thousands of jobs. It was therefore heartening that our recently announced Member Islatuna – one of the main producer organisations from the Canary Islands – was keen to discuss bigeye with their decision makers (Spain and the EU Commission) over the summer. This was their very first interaction with ICCAT decision makers, and they did a great job.

During the EU coordination meeting, Macu da Silva, secretary of Islatuna and wife of a one-by-one tuna fisher, eloquently said, “...this time we do not want to get to the same extreme situation as with bluefin tuna since bigeye tuna is one of the main species captured by our artisanal tuna boats… These vessels are dedicated to the selective fishing of tunas that pass through the Canary Islands while following their migratory routes. Canarian one-by-one tuna fishing vessels create approximately 1,000 direct jobs, and approximately 5,000 indirect jobs.”

Such sincere and valuable feedback was appreciated by the decision makers, and I am thrilled that Islatuna will also join November’s Annual Meeting to play a critical and much needed role in balancing different EU industry interests. We will be present too, and I am excited to continue our work with stakeholders and delegations to support responsible, equitable management solutions. Hopefully our shared mission will result in a turning point for the bigeye tuna saga. It’s abundantly clear that we need sustainable and equitable management of the Atlantic Ocean’s tuna fisheries. That will give developing coastal states fair opportunities and put the overall fishing pressure in line with scientific advice.