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The Year in Tuna Sustainability: Some Celebrations, Some Disappointments

Many Points on the Horizon Are Looking Much Brighter, But Regulators, Industry Remain Adrift in Challenging Seas.

One of the biggest fish in Silicon Valley, Elon Musk, stirs up turbulence with just about everything he says. But, as I reviewed 2019’s record of progress in tuna sustainability, one of his comments came back to me, calm and clear.

“I’m learning patience,” he once said. “It’s a tough lesson.”

True, our work with the world’s regional fishing management organizations (RFMOs) generated some notable accomplishments. Equally true: the pursuit of other victories just consumed a ton of patience. In that spirit, I’d like to recap the year’s RFMO activity in sustainably conserving and managing the world’s tuna resources — ISSF’s core mission.

First, the accomplishments. Two RFMOs, the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission (IOTC) and the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT), acted decisively to reduce the impact of fish-aggregating devices, or FADs, on marine ecosystems. That was encouraging news for ISSF, because we’ve championed science-based FAD reforms, and spearheaded research to reduce their impacts, since 2009.

Fishing Gains Selectivity and Sustainability

New IOTC measures for purse-seine fishing vessels will require non-entangling FADs (designed to reduce the chance of accidentally ensnaring species such as sharks and turtles) in 2020, and biodegradable materials in FADs in 2022. At the same time, IOTC reduced the number of active FADs per vessel in IOTC waters from 350 to 300, and scaled down each vessel’s total, active and inactive, FAD count from 700 to 500.

IOTC also clarified its reporting rules for data on FADs, and took steps towards standardized FAD marking, tracking, and retrieval procedures. These measures, along with the non-entangling and biodegradability steps, support better resource management, reduce risks to sensitive species; minimize beachings of derelict FADs; and decrease plastics pollution. 

Meanwhile, in the Atlantic, ICCAT made notable strides in:

  • Expanding time limits for FAD-based fishing across its entire convention area
  • Reducing the number of active FADs per vessel
  • Placing observers on more vessels, under safer conditions

Specifically: In 2020, FADs fishing will pause during January and February throughout the Atlantic Ocean and adjacent waters. The restriction will stretch to three months in 2021 and beyond. Until now, limits on fishing with FADs applied for only two months, in just a limited part of ICCAT’s convention area.

Also reduced is the number of FADs with active electronic buoys that allow fishers to determine the device’s location and the amount of tuna under it. By 2021, no vessel will be allowed to operate more than 300 active buoys in ICCAT waters, compared to the current limit of 500 — the highest number allowed by any RFMO.

In a landmark action, ICCAT finally responded to calls for full onboard observer coverage, and greater attention to observer safety. Previous requirements placed observers only on tropical tuna purse seiners during a two-month, regionally limited fishing moratorium. Now all purse seine vessels targeting tropical tunas will have to carry observers throughout the year. And, in 2022, 10 percent of all longline vessels over 20 meters will also be required to carry observers, doubling the number of vessels covered under the old rules.

The scientific payoffs from greater observer coverage are hard to overstate. ICCAT scientists, whose bycatch estimates long have suffered from inadequate data, soon will see first-hand accounts of catches and interactions with non-target species in both fisheries. Higher-quality data streams will boost the accuracy of stock assessments, enhance monitoring, and pave the way to improved conservation measures.

Those are clear steps toward sustainability. But 2019 also saw its share of missed opportunities – and for these our patience is tested.

Indifference Blocks Turtle, Shark Protection

Once again, the majority of RFMOs failed to adopt science-based best practices for protecting sea turtles from tuna fishing hazards. While the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission (IATTC) took some positive steps, neither ICCAT nor IOTC added stronger longline-fishing safeguards for turtles. ICCAT actually ignored advice from its own scientists regarding shallow-set longline fisheries, where most turtle bycatch deaths occur.

Similarly, all four tuna RFMOs ended another year without addressing the clearly recognized overfishing of certain shark stocks. For example, ICCAT research indicates North Atlantic shortfin mako depletion serious enough to justify a 50-year-plus rebuilding period. But the commission again failed to act on input from its own scientific body.

Elsewhere, in IATTC purse-seine tuna fisheries, the silky shark leads other shark species in bycatch, and is often caught by longline fisheries. Long-term bycatch declines among large silky sharks confirm dwindling populations. While IATTC did modestly adjust its shark-bycatch regulations in 2019, two information gaps still hinder accurate assessments:
• Scanty operational data from longline fisheries
• Scarce fishery and biological sampling data

These deficiencies are significant because insufficient data (due to very low onboard observer coverage) is often cited as an excuse for inaction by the same nations that block increases in observer coverage — a contrived dilemma some of my colleagues call “Bycatch 22”. It’s time to end this tired refrain and move ahead.

What’s more, although the tools exist and the science is clear, neither IOTC, IATTC, nor ICCAT introduced requirements for best practices for handling sharks. By slow-walking progress toward integrated management of tuna resources and the threatened species also caught in these fisheries, RFMOs continue to live up to public criticisms.

Loopholes, Laxity Enable Furtive Activities

ISSF and a coalition of NGOs have long pressed for reforms in at-sea transshipment, which occasions a wide range of potential illegal activities. Several RFMO member state leaders have joined us but, so far, no RFMO has effectively addressed loopholes and laxity regarding:

  • Time frames for requesting transshipment authorization
  • Observer coverage on both carriers and fishing vessels
  • Wider data-sharing arrangements
  • Shorter deadlines for submitting transshipment declarations

The nations most active in transhipment have blocked proposed IATTC and ICCAT reforms. At least a Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC) working group is reviewing outdated transshipment measures in the world’s largest tuna fishery. While this is a positive sign, the group spent all of 2019 on preliminary procedural matters.

So — how should we approach 2020? Myself, I plan to remember that good outcomes hardly ever happen in a week or a month. They’re created day by day, sometimes over the course of years — not through confrontation, but with patience and perseverance. Let’s stay hopeful, manage our expectations … and keep at it.


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