The science of sustainable seafood, explained

ICCAT’s decision on Atlantic bigeye tuna is bad fishery management

This past November, the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT – the governing body that manages tuna fisheries in the Atlantic Ocean) decided to maintain catch limits on Atlantic bigeye tuna, despite scientific evidence the stock is overfished—catch limits should have been reduced. This is a bad decision and could lead to further depletion of Atlantic bigeye tuna.

ICCAT functions like a typical international fishery management body: stakeholders from different countries cooperate to determine and allocate catch limits, hopefully based on the best available fishery science. Good fishery management uses science to inform decisions, but ICCAT decided to ignore the recommendation to reduce major harvester catch to 50,000 metric tons and instead maintained major harvester catch at 65,000 metric tons, 30% higher than suggested.

There are two main conflicts here: skipjack tuna vs bigeye tuna fishing and major vs minor harvesters of bigeye.

Skipjack purse seiners vs bigeye longliners

Skipjack tuna in the Atlantic are often caught using fish aggregating devices (FADs). A FAD is basically a large floating structure (fish love structure) with a gps monitor so boats can find them after deployment. FADs make skipjack fishing easier (lower fuel costs), but FADs also attract juvenile bigeye tuna that get swept up with skipjack. Increased pressure on juvenile bigeye have reduced the average size and spawning capability of the Atlantic bigeye population. Further, skipjack and the juvenile bigeye end up as canned tuna, whereas targeted adult bigeye end up on sushi plates and command a much higher price. Juvenile bigeye caught and canned incur a major opportunity cost, both depleting and devaluing a future resource.

With skipjack and bigeye both managed by ICCAT, a solution should be available, but inaction has favored the skipjack fishery, which has recently reached record highs, while bigeye remains overfished.

Minor harvester loophole

Another issue has to do with how bigeye quota is allocated to the stakeholders that fish them. ‘Major’ harvesters are countries with large amounts of quota that specifically target bigeye; ‘minor’ harvesters are smaller countries that maintain rights to fish but have less capacity to harvest. The original idea behind the major vs minor distinction was to protect smaller countries’ right to fish, however, a loophole in the original guideline lets minor harvesters, collectively, take much more than they should. Minor harvesters are not allocated any catch, but a portion of total bigeye catch is ‘set aside’ for these lower-capacity countries. Currently, 11.1% of total bigeye catch (around 7,000 metric tons) is set aside, however each individual minor harvester is entitled to 3,500 metric tons; there are so many minor harvesters that if each individual exercised their full right to fish, bigeye catch would exceed 150,000 metric tons! This is the loophole that needs to be closed.

You can see in the figure above that minor harvesters have exceeded the 11.1% proportion every year for the past decade, yet their harvest continues to increase. Some major harvesters have paid off smaller countries to switch flags on vessels to take advantage of the minor harvester loophole.

Minor harvesters should be protected, but the loophole needs to be fixed so overfishing stops.

ICCAT’s inaction

It is disappointing that ICCAT has not taken steps to protect the Atlantic bigeye fishery. Potential solutions include everything from regulating skipjack FADs, to closing the minor harvester loophole, to reducing overall quota, yet no action was taken.

Both environmental NGOs and many in the fishing industry have strongly condemned ICCAT’s inaction. Pew and WWF have spoken out on the conservation end and many in the seafood industry have done the same (e.g. ABTA, BWF, and Europeche). 

If you’d like to read more, Pew has put together a history of the fishery.

Picture of Max Mossler

Max Mossler

Max is the managing editor at Sustainable Fisheries UW.

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One Response

  1. A sad story indeed. This is a perfect example of when consensus-based decision-making does not work. ICCAT members were unable to agree to a measure that followed scientific advice; all it takes is one, two or a few members to disagree, and the deal is off. The decision to maintain the TAC was basically made at the very end of the meeting in order to not have a completely open-access fishery in 2019.

    ICCAT needs to adopt Management Procedures that will move it away from consensus-based decisions. But, it also needs to tackle the thorny issue of allocation head on.

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