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Tuna fisheries in the eastern tropical Pacific are set to be left completely unregulated as of January 1, 2021, following a striking failure to renew key management measures by delegates to the annual meeting of the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission (IATTC).
Delegates failed to secure the unanimous approval needed to renew catch limits for longline vessels, seasonal and spatial closures for purse seine fishing, and restrictions around the use of fish aggregating devices (FADs) for tropical tuna fisheries.
“All the things that are important to fisheries management are gone starting January 1,” says Grantly Galland, a member of the international fisheries project at the Pew Charitable Trusts who attended the virtual meeting. “It’s hard to overstate how concerning this is.”
The bizarre outcome is a first for IATTC, a regional fisheries management organization (RFMO) that has governed skipjack, yellowfin, and bigeye tuna stocks in the eastern tropical Pacific without interruption since 1966. To try to restore the management measures, IATTC has scheduled an emergency meeting for December 22.
Worth up to US $6-billion, IATTC’s tuna fisheries are generally well-managed, with several stocks considered sustainable by programs such as Seafood Watch and the Marine Stewardship Council. However, the looming absence of management measures could result in overexploitation, calling these certifications into doubt and causing lasting harm to tuna populations.
“After a whole year of unchecked fishing, we might find ourselves in 2022 with stocks that need a rebuilding plan to address long-term impacts to the fishery,” says Galland.
IATTC’s members reached gridlock following a prolonged debate about the best way to minimize the impact of FADs—devices that draw large numbers of fish to one place so they can be caught more easily, but have the unfortunate consequence of attracting large numbers of juvenile bigeye and yellowfin tuna. As the meeting drew to a close, delegates voted on whether or not to renew key management measures, with only Colombia opposing the decision, according to Guillermo Moran, director of Tuna Conservation Group, an Ecuadorian industry group.
Duncan Currie, an expert on international environmental law based in New Zealand, says the outcome highlights the problem with requiring unanimous decision-making for RFMOs. He points to the recent meeting of another RFMO, the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCALMR), during which the Russian delegation blocked the vote to include a Russian-flagged vessel on CCAMLR’s blacklist, despite evidence that it had been fishing illegally. “Consensus is fine when all states share the same objective and act in good faith, but when they don’t, it can be abused,” he says.
Currie says IATTC could prevent this kind of situation from happening again by allowing members to opt out of voting on a measure if they don’t agree with it, rather than forcing them to express their discontent by derailing the voting.
Alternatively, Galland says RFMOs should adopt systems where management measures are set automatically based on stock assessments and other scientific data, rather than relying on delegates’ unanimous support.
As for the current regulatory crisis, unless IATTC can put some management measures in place, tuna fisheries that continue to operate in the eastern tropical Pacific would be engaging in illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing. Currie says member nations should urge their flagged fleets not to fish in the region, and that major seafood importers, including the United States and the European Union, should not purchase any fish caught in IATTC’s jurisdiction until regulations can be reinstated.
As 2020 wanes, all eyes will be on IATTC to get the much-needed measures in place, says Galland.
“If IATTC can adopt something before January 1, I think there will be a huge sigh of relief breathed all around the Pacific.”