atlantic fisheries stronger rules

Stronger rules for swordfish and skipjack tuna fisheries management in the Atlantic would boost climate resilience believes Esther Wozniak

Improved swordfish and skipjack tuna management and better oversight would boost climate resilience

By Esther Wozniak


The world’s fish stocks and the communities that depend on them are increasingly affected by warming waters caused by climate change.

With shifts in stock range and dynamics such as maturation rates, science-based, sustainable management is needed to ensure that fisheries worth millions—and in some cases, billions—of dollars each year remain viable.

When the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) meets in Cairo, Egypt, from 13 to 20 November, it will consider proposals that could help ensure the long-term sustainability of valuable fish stocks in the region, including modernized management of north Atlantic swordfish and western Atlantic skipjack. The commission should also endorse a workplan to consider climate change in future fisheries management decisions and establish an expert group to oversee these efforts.


Maintaining recovery from heavy fishing

After decades of heavy fishing, north Atlantic swordfish nearly collapsed in the 1990s, a decline that triggered substantial cuts in catch limits. Although the population has been stable for 10 years, fisheries now face rising uncertainty because of ocean changes. Therefore, to better ensure the continued health of the swordfish population, ICCAT should proactively adopt a management procedure for north Atlantic swordfish.

Management procedures, also known as harvest strategies, focus on long-term objectives—versus annual catch limit negotiations—with pre-agreed rules to determine future changes in allowable catch, all of which is designed to maintain sustainable fisheries. In a changing ocean environment, a management procedure can also insulate stocks by accounting for warming ocean temperatures, changes in fish population and other variables.

ICCAT is considering a management procedure for swordfish, thanks to a multilateral effort led by Canada, the European Union and the United States. By adopting this harvest strategy, ICCAT would demonstrate its commitment to managing non-tuna species sustainably. The commission previously adopted harvest strategies for albacore and bluefin tuna and is considering several more for other tuna species.

Similarly, a multi-year process has produced several management procedure options for western Atlantic skipjack tuna. Skipjack is a commercially important species, with nearly 3 million metric tons landed globally each year, the most of any tuna species and the third most of any wild-caught fishery in the world.

Fisheries targeting the western Atlantic population are only a small fraction of this total, but a management procedure would be beneficial for the relevant fishing operations because it would provide stability and potentially open a path to certain ecolabel certifications. It would also be the first for any tropical tuna in the Atlantic. Brazil, which catches 90% of western Atlantic skipjack, can demonstrate leadership at ICCAT by proposing a management procedure for skipjack this year—and if that happens, the commission should adopt it.


Improving oversight would support implementation of management procedures

Once a management procedure is approved, decision makers still need accurate data to monitor stocks in their charge. A critical part of that data comes from human observers on board vessels. ICCAT requires 10% observer coverage for tropical tuna longline vessels; the other four tuna regional fisheries management organizations require only 5% coverage. To date, ICCAT longline vessels have been unable to meet the 10% requirement, and this is where electronic monitoring (EM) can help. EM uses technology, such as cameras and sensors, to track catch and other activity at sea.

ICCAT has been working to finalize EM standards that would lay out how member countries collect, analyze and share data. Standards—such as those that the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission adopted earlier this year—will help countries that want to implement EM to reach the coverage threshold and provide better scientific data to inform catch limits and management measures. ICCAT members should adopt these standards this year and strive for 20% observer coverage, per the recommendations from the scientific community.

ICCAT can further ensure that all its members and their vessels are playing by the rules by adopting a measure on high seas boarding and inspection (HSBI). HSBI is a way for all ICCAT members to work together on vessel inspections to ensure that members are upholding their commitments. Defining and implementing these procedures can help prevent illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing and ensure that the shared resources of ICCAT are well managed. ICCAT members should work together to ensure equitable enforcement and capacity building so that all members can use the HSBI measure effectively.

After years of discussions and hundreds of hours of multilateral deliberations, ICCAT members have laid the foundation for what should be a successful meeting. ICCAT has an opportunity to be the first RFMO to adopt multiple management procedures at the same meeting, a significant milestone in the shift to modernizing fisheries management. The proposals on the table—on harvest strategies, EM standards, HSBI and other important issues—together would honor governments’ commitments to science-based management and support greater oversight of fisheries, charting a path towards more sustainability and resilience amid a changing ocean.

Atlantic fisheries stronger rules

Esther Wozniak is a manager with The Pew Charitable Trusts’ international fisheries project.


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