The Atlantic Ocean is home to over US$ 1 billion worth of tuna caught using a variety of fishing methods, ranging from bamboo poles to nets larger than a city block. The Atlantic’s tuna fisheries provide food for many communities, create jobs in processing plants and fuel an international market for fresh, frozen, and tinned tuna products. The job of maintaining the balance between different user groups, while also keeping the fishing stocks healthy belongs to the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT).
For 10 days, 14-22 November 2017, the 50-odd member countries that participate in ICCAT gathered for its 25th annual meeting in Marrakech. Most famously, this body is tasked with managing the iconic bluefin tuna, which after years of heavy overfishing is now showing signs of recovery. However, in focusing on the recovery plan for this highly prized species, fisheries managers have failed to show adequate discourse for the region’s most valuable tuna fisheries – skipjack, yellowfin and bigeye tuna – collectively called “tropical tunas”.
Recognising the ever-increasing pressure on these tropical tuna stocks, a number of countries put forward a proposal to limit the overharvesting of both yellowfin and bigeye tuna.
Asanda Njobeni, head of the South African Delegation who took the lead on the proposal, says, “South Africa is very worried about what’s happening in the ICCAT tropical tuna fishery. These fisheries are important for countries all around the Atlantic, but certain fleets are driving unsustainable catches. When you look at the statistics, it is pretty clear what has been happening, and our proposal simply attempted to put on the brakes, so we are not in a more difficult situation next year.”
Over the last several years, industrial fleets have flooded the fishery, increasing the pressure on the Atlantic's tropical tuna stocks. Purse seine catches of yellowfin tuna alone have increased by 98% over the past ten years. While some of the biggest fleets are capped in an attempt to keep harvests within sustainable levels, there is a loophole that allows vessels to be re-flagged to other countries to get around such limits. The South African proposal, which was officially co-sponsored by Brazil, Japan, Mexico, Namibia, Nigeria, Senegal and Uruguay would have capped the numbers of such vessels as well as the use of drifting FADs and supply vessels – key tools that increase the harvest of juvenile yellowfin and bigeye tuna by large catching vessels.
From the perspective of many of the stakeholders in the Azores one-by-one tuna fishery, the meeting was a major disappointment. Pedro Capela, from the pole-and-line boatowner’s association in the Azores, says, “The future of artisanal and sustainable fisheries is bleak if ICCAT continues to fail us. Europe’s outermost regions, like the Azores and Madeira, use the most selective fishing methods and employ lots of people, however we have no voice with our own decision makers. We are very worried about bigeye tuna and the future of our fishermen.”
Waylon Thomas, a small boat tuna fishermen from Saint Helena in the South Atlantic, adds, “We have been catching bigeye and yellowfin tuna one-by-one in St Helena for generations. We have policies in our waters – we only catch tuna one-by-one. To hear that the industrialised fleets are skirting around management measures on the same fish stock that provides for my family is infuriating.”
Adam Baske, Policy & Outreach Director of IPNLF, reflects on the ICCAT meeting, “We came here hoping that all members would be willing to address the obvious threats to sustainability of the Atlantic’s most valuable tuna fishery, and unfortunately the willingness was not there. ICCAT countries are taking a risky approach by putting off actions to protect their most valuable stocks, and I predict that we will be back next year, addressing the same issues, but to a more severe degree. We will work tirelessly with our partners to make sure responsible and equitable actions are developed in 2018.”
On a positive note, ICCAT did adopt a harvest control rule for north Atlantic albacore tuna. This is a key species for one-by-one fishermen in northern Spain, and the pre-agreed rules mean this stock now meets international best-practice, along with the skipjack tuna fishery in the Maldives.