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CONSERVATION COMMUNITY DISAPPOINTED BY 2018 ICCAT MEETING

The 2018 meeting of the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) was held in November.  Major issues on the agenda included a new stock assessment for Atlantic bigeye tuna, conservation measures for overfished white and blue marlin stocks, and a proposed restriction on shark finning.

In each of those cases, ICCAT took no meaningful action to conserve depleted fish stocks.

ICCAT’s failure to offer additional protections to Atlantic bigeye tuna, after a recent assessment indicated that the stock was both overfished and subject to overfishing, was probably the most disappointing failure at what was, over all, a lackluster meeting.

Bigeye tuna support a commercial fishery that is more economically valuable than the better-known fishery for bluefin tuna.  The main participants are European purse seine boats, which catch large quantities of juvenile bigeye for the canned tuna market, and Asian longliners that target adult bigeye for the sushi, retail and restaurant trade.  Most of the bigeye are caught by boats from a handful of nations, although there is also a second-tier group of fishing nations that, individually, catch far fewer fish, but account for significant bigeye mortality when all of their catch is combined.

That is where the problem lies.

In 2015, ICCAT adopted a 65,000 metric ton annual catch limit for bigeye, but such limit only applied to the seven largest harvesters.  The smaller harvesters were subject to no limits at all.  As a result, bigeye landings exceeded 80,000 metric tons in 2017, a level that was clearly unsustainable.  The recent stock assessment indicated that, because of overfishing, bigeye abundance has already dropped to just 20% of historic levels, and will collapse within twenty years if no further action is taken.

The problem is that no nation wants to take any action to fix the problem, if it will mean a reduction in their landings; they all want the other countries to make the cuts.

The European purse seiners argue that they only catch about one-third of the fish, and point to the Asian longliners, who catch more, as the problem.  But the Europeans conveniently ignore the fact that they only catch one-third of the tuna when the fish are measured in pounds; measure the catch in numbers of fish instead, and the Europeans catch a far larger percentage, because they concentrate their efforts on much smaller fish.

While the Asian longliners have been intransigent with respect to new regulations, the small fishing nations have been just as stubborn, refusing to be subject to any regulations at all.

As one of the observers at the meeting noted, “Everyone is to blame for this one.  Each individual member is more concerned with its own priorities than on finding consensus on a real recovery plan.”

When the meeting ended, the assembled delegates had agreed on only a few minor steps forward; the 65,000 metric ton catch limit, applicable to only seven nations, was carried forward for another year.

Things didn’t go any better for white or blue marlin.

A new stock assessment, released in July 2018, showed blue marlin to be overfished, with overfishing still occurring.  Since 2011, the annual catch limit for the species has been 2,000 metric tons.  The European Union proposed dropping that catch limit to 1,750 metric tons, a move that would have given the stock a 50% chance of rebuilding over the next ten years.  However, the proposal was not approved at the meeting.

The United States urged ICCAT to adopt measures to protect white and blue marlin similar to those already in effect in the U.S., including the universal use of circle hooks on longliners, electronic monitoring of pelagic longline vessels and a requirement that all marlin hooked on longlines be released alive.  Those measures, too, failed to gain sufficient support.

The U.S. also joined with 25 other nations in an effort to limit shark finning, by requiring that fins be left attached to the sharks until the fish were brought back to port, making it illegal for fishermen to merely cut the fins off a shark and dump the still-living carcass back into the sea.  However, such proposal also found insufficient support.