Progress in Atlantic tuna negotiations

Adam Baske breaks down key outcomes of the recent ICCAT meetings and their implications for IPNLF Members and the Atlantic one-by-one tuna fisheries that we champion.

The 2016 annual meeting of the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) meeting ended this Monday (21st November), in Vilamoura, Portugal, to a sea of mixed reviews. The headline news is that after years of neglect, the Mediterranean swordfish fishery is now under a management plan – a positive first step! For tuna, ICCAT member countries agreed to manage northern albacore in line with international best practice, applying the precautionary approach to fisheries management. We are very pleased with this move, as there are several one-by-one tuna fisheries that rely on this stock and we hope it sets the stage for similar progress for other tuna fisheries in the Atlantic.

ICCAT is probably the most well known of all the global tuna management bodies. This is because for years it was in the spotlight due to unsustainable bluefin tuna catches in the Mediterranean. In recent times, though, the 50 ICCAT countries have made some impressive progress, and bluefin in the eastern Atlantic is now under a strict rebuilding programme, which seems to be paying off. Of all the tuna regional fisheries management organisations (RFMOs) I have experience with – ICCAT, IATTC, WCPFC, and IOTC – I can say with confidence that ICCAT has the strongest compliance process. It is a very transparent and thorough body, with its members poring over country reports, catch tables and infractions. ICCAT also has the most fully developed system of quotas and allocation of all RFMOs. In the case of bluefin tuna, every tonne of the total allowable catch is allocated between 24 member countries. This is commendable as any allocation negotiation can take years.

During the week of negotiations in Portugal, IPNLF co-sponsored an event with eight other groups to share experiences of tuna fisheries that have developed harvest strategies. This coming together attracted more than 180 people, including many key decision makers, which was encouraging as it clearly demonstrated the desire of stakeholders and governments to take a more modern and precautionary approach when developing management frameworks. Such motion was reinforced at the end of the week with ICCAT’s decision to adopt a timeline for the development of harvest strategies for an array of tuna fisheries, including albacore, skipjack, yellowfin, bluefin and bigeye. 

This year, one of the biggest challenges on the agenda was ending the overfishing of bigeye tuna. Scientists were calling on ICCAT to specifically address the high levels of juvenile bigeye caught in association with fish aggregating devices (FADs). A recent study suggests that the prevalence of FAD buoys increased more than 500% in the Atlantic Ocean in the period 2007-2013 (Maufroy et al. 2016) and, as one delegate from the meeting pointed out, if all of the 56 purse seiners in the Atlantic used their full allocation of 500 FADs, then 28,000 would be in the ocean. This would more than double the most recent estimate and place enormous pressure on the stocks of bigeye and yellowfin tuna, which are already overfished.

However, despite the scientific advice ICCAT member countries could not agree on concrete actions to reduce catches, and scientists were asked to look further into the issue so delegates can take more targeted action next year. 

This was a disappointing outcome for a number of participants, including some one-by-one fishery representatives like the pole-and-line fishery in the Azores, which lamented that it is already experiencing record low catches in its waters and pointed to inadequate FAD management as a reason for this decline. IPNLF is committed to working with them and other Members throughout the supply chain to continue pushing for progress on this issue in the Atlantic. While it’s clear ICCAT has a new challenge on its plate, it is not an insurmountable one. IPNLF looks forward to engaging with this progressive RFMO and being part of the solution in the years ahead. 


Maufroy, A., Kaplan D M., Bez N., Chassot E., 2016. Massive increase in the use of drifting Fish Aggregating Devices (dFADs) by tropical tuna purse seine fisheries in the Atlantic and Indian oceans. ICES Journal of Marine Science: Journal du Conseil (2016): fsw175.