ICCAT Tuna Quota Reductions not Enough: Environmentalists

28 November 2008

The international organisation in charge of regulating the bluefin tuna industry has been slammed by environmentalists after deciding on catch limits higher than the organisation's own scientists have recommended.

The International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas, or ICCAT, convened for their 16th annual meeting from 17 to 24 November in Marrakech, Morrocco, in what had been built up to be the meeting to decide the fate of the eastern Atlantic and Mediterranean bluefin tuna species. But, conservationists have been quick to condemn what passed the vote, saying that the measures are not stringent enough to prevent a collapse of the bluefin tuna stock.

Under the agreement reached, the total allowable catch for eastern bluefin tuna has been reduced to 22,000 tonnes in 2009 from 28,500 tonnes in 2008, and this limit will be further decreased to 19,950 tonnes in 2010 - a two-year reduction of 30 percent. In addition to the catch limits, the agreement authorises a four month reduction in the fishing season for the purse seine fleet, which make the bulk of the tuna catches, and capacity will be frozen at 2007-2008 levels to help combat illegal fishing. In a separate decision, ICCAT also established a peer review system to assess member compliance, and which has the authority to impose sanctions.

Proponents of this deal, which was driven by the EU with the support of Algeria, Egypt, Japan, Morocco, Syria and Tunisia, defeated a rival proposal to limit the total catch to 15,000 tonnes and close the fishery for the full spawning period, when most of the tuna catch occurs. According to the decision, there will be an overlap between the spawning season and authorised fishing period.

Notably Japan, which consumes 80 percent of tuna caught in the Mediterranean, switched sides during the negotiations from that of the defeated proposal. Led by the US, Brazil, Canada, Iceland, Mexico and Norway had moved to have the 2008 quota limit in the range of 8,500 and 15,000 tonnes - in line with ICCATs own scientists' recommendations.

"The result may not be perfect," ICCAT chair Fabio Hazin conceded. "But it was the best result possible in such a complicated meeting and I am very confident and hopeful that the decisions we made here will help to ensure the sustainability of the tuna stocks we have demanded to manage."

Environmental groups slam ICCAT decision

International environmental groups including Greenpeace, Oceana and the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) were quick to accuse ICCAT member nations of disregarding their own scientific advice and so paving the way for a species crash, like that of the Atlantic cod collapse.

"Instead of preserving the bluefin tuna stock from collapse, they gave in to the industry's short-term economic interests," said Xavier Pastor, Executive Director for Oceana in Europe "With this decision, we can only wait for the disappearance of bluefin tuna." Greenpeace concurred, calling the decision "disastrous and shameful."

ICCAT scientists had warned in a 2006 report that bluefin tuna numbers in the east Atlantic and Mediterranean had fallen to one-fifth of levels seen in the mid-1970s. The report says that extensive illegal fishing is resulting in annual catches as high as 50,000 tons, which could lead to a collapse in the tuna stock. The scientists' report called for the legal quota to be more than halved from 32,000 to 15,000 tonnes and for a ban on all fishing during the spawning period during May and June.

Environmental groups were quick to blame the EU for the decision. Both Greenpeace and the WWF, accused the EU of pressuring ICCAT members from developing countries to support higher quotas by using trade threats - reportedly related to the valuable banana industry.

Tensions were indeed high at the meeting with Libya, which sees the most prolific Mediterranean tuna fishing in its region, reportedly walking out of the meeting.

But the EU has defended its decision. "A [quota] is not enough in itself to protect fish stocks; a reduced [quota] accompanied by a shorter season and increased control is the solution to preserving this resource," said Nathalie Charbonneau, spokeswoman for the EU fisheries and maritime affairs department.

And while many believe the quotas put in place are not stringent enough, others point out that current fishing limits would be adequate if they were respected. According to ICCAT statistics, the total catch in the Mediterranean last year was 61,000 tonnes, more than twice the authorised limit of 29,500 tonnes. The year before that, ICCAT scientists estimated the illegal fishing in the same region added about 30 percent onto the official catch figures.

Environmentalists call for bluefin boycott

Indeed, part of the outcry expressed by environmentalists in the wake of the meeting, may be attributable to the fact that opposition to anything but a strong agreement was not evident in the lead up to the meeting. In a statement released earlier in the year, the EU said they would "be seeking an ambitious revision of the recovery plan that can bring about decisive improvements of the condition of the stock without further delay."

Moreover, the ICCAT decision ignored a vote by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature in Barcelona last October, and supported by many environmental organisations, calling for a moratorium on the species until member states were able to reign in the industry's rampant illegal fishing. The vote was notable for the fact that even the big tuna nations Japan and Spain had called for a suspension of the fishery from concern over critically low stock levels (see Bridges Trade BioRes, 17 October 2008 http://www.ictsd.org/bridges-news/biores/news/endangered-species-tourism-fisheries-highlighted-at-iucn-congress).

Environmentalists have pointed to the agreement as proof that ICCAT, by continuously ignoring its own scientists' advice on quotas, has failed as a credible international regulatory body. Indeed ICCAT implemented a 15-year recovery plan for eastern bluefin tuna in 2006. But ICCAT scientists have recently reported that the plan and its system for control and monitoring of the fishery have failed in the envisaged effectiveness.

And environmental groups fear this year's decisions will also prove ineffective, hinting that ICCAT members' do not have the means to enforce the quotas. Instead, they see a moratorium as the most viable option to ensure the long-term survival of the tuna stock and fishery.

Indeed, international environmental campaign group, the WWF, has renewed its campaign for a consumer boycott of Atlantic bluefin tuna. The organisation has also indicated it will apply for bluefin tuna to be added as an ‘appendix 1' species on the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora's (CITES) list, and so automatically authorise a ban on the international tuna trade. Proposals for the list are required by August 2009 to be considered at the next CITES meeting in Doha in January 2010.

Sharks, western bluefin tuna also considered

The annual ICCAT meeting also looked at measures for other endangered stock in the region. Strong action was adopted to rebuild the western Atlantic bluefin tuna stock. Driven by the US, this measure sees the quota for the western Atlantic stock reduced from 2,100 tonnes to 1,800 tonnes by 2010.

Regarding North Atlantic swordfish, management measures will be extended for another year, in order to provide time for stock replenishment and assessment.

Several shark conservation proposals were also considered, including three proposals by the EU directed at thresher and hammerhead sharks, blue and mako sharks, and concerning the porbealge shark. And action on the bigeye thresher sharks was taken, authorising the live release of these sharks accidently caught.

ICCAT is comprised of 46 majoring fishing nations, ranging from Japan to Egypt, Norway and the US, and is responsible for setting the quota catch for the Atlantic and Mediterranean oceans.

ICTSD reporting; "Higher quotas will push Atlantic tuna closer to collapse, campaigners warn," THE GUARDIAN, 25 November 2008; "EU, other states, cut Mediterranean tuna quotas," REUTERS, 26 November 2008; "Bluefin tuna: call for boycott after quotas set higher than scientists recommend," THE TELEGRAPH, 25 November 2008; "International talks to save overfished tuna start in Morocco," AGENCE FRANCE PRESSE, 17 November 2008.

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