[8 November 2021]

Concerns have been building since bigeye tuna was formally declared overfished by scientists of the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) in 2015. This year, seven years after the first scientific assessment, scientists still have to conclude that the population (or so-called “stock”) is overfished. 

Bigeye tuna is the most valuable tuna for fisheries in the Atlantic Ocean region. A highly migratory fast predator, bigeye can reach an impressive length of 2.5 metres and weigh up to 210 kg. Its considerable size and much appreciated quality in sushi markets makes bigeye a valuable commercial species, generating over US$1bn from catches in the Atlantic region alone. Adult fish are primarily caught by handline and longline, and receive the highest price. However, it has been the large increases in juvenile bigeye tuna catches by purse seiners using drifting fish aggregating devices (FADs) that have driven the decline of the species. 

Despite the fact that increased efficiency and capacity of industrial fisheries have led to overfishing of bigeye tuna, low impact fisheries that use artisanal methods like pole-and-line and handline in the Azores, Canary Islands and Madeira have had  strict catch limits imposed on them, thereby penalising the most responsible actors. To shine a light on the struggles and value of low impact tuna fisheries in the Atlantic Ocean region, the International Pole & Line Foundation (IPNLF) recently launched Tuna Tales; a series of videos developed with the award winning documentary makers Pepe Brix and Rui Pedro Lamy. 

Even though the new bigeye tuna assessment results suggest a more positive status than under the previous assessment in 2018, ICCAT scientists warn that results should be interpreted with caution, thereby highlighting the need for following a precautionary approach which will ensure a high probability of recovery of the bigeye tuna stock. At this stage bigeye tuna remains overfished and the uncertainty in the results has increased. Moreover, the scientists clearly state that the “estimated total numbers of FADs released yearly has increased since the beginning of the FAD fishery, especially in recent years”. 

Despite the amount of uncertainty and call for caution in the last bigeye tuna assessment report, NGOs and small-scale fishery stakeholders fear that the slightly more positive (yet more uncertain) results compared to the previous assessment might be used as an excuse to increase catches and flexibility of large-scale operators in the Atlantic Ocean region. 

To express their concern regarding the current lack of action to rebuild the bigeye tuna stock in a precautionary manner and to insist on an equitable approach where  vulnerable small-scale fishers are treated fairly and their livelihoods are safeguarded, more than 20 concerned organisations, representing both civil society and fishery groups, wrote a letter to the European Commissioner for Environment, Oceans and Fisheries, Virginijus Sinkevičius, in which they urgently call for action to ensure the sustainable and fair management of Atlantic Ocean tropical tuna fisheries. One key point in the letter is the need for the application of the ‘polluter pays’ principle. Not only do FADs drive the overfishing of tropical tuna populations, but like longline fisheries they also kill vulnerable species like turtles and sharks, and harm the broader marine environment in the form of marine litter and direct habitat damage as abandoned, lost, and discarded fishing gear (ALDFG). There is clear evidence that FADs are often deliberately abandoned by purse seiners during their fishing operations and a recent paper by Law of the Sea expert, Emeritus Professor Robin Churchil of the University of Dundee, highlighted the fact that the non-accidental loss of a FAD breaches Annex V of MARPOL, which is aimed at the prevention of pollution at sea by ships. The ‘polluter pays’ principle is the commonly accepted practice that those who produce pollution should bear the costs of managing it to prevent damage to human health or the environment.

The polluter pays principle is a principle of EU environmental law enshrined in Article 191 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union and is regarded as an overarching principle of environmental responsibility. The EU has further publicly stated that “in addition to harming the environment, marine litter damages activities such as tourism, fisheries and shipping” and that it “threatens food chains, especially seafood”. As part of their Plastics Strategy, the European Commission has further committed itself to look into further action to address plastic marine litter and FADs are specifically mentioned in this document as one of the potential sources of plastic pollution through the abandonment, loss or discarding of fishing gear. The call made in the letter to Commissioner Sinkevičius is therefore fully aligned with the EU’s own commitments to minimise their own marine pollution impacts.