IOTC Takes Important Steps for Skipjack Tuna, Falls Short on Yellowfin
By: Claire van der Geest and Wetjens Dimmlich 
Date: June 2, 2016

The Indian Ocean Tuna Commission (IOTC) met 23-27 May 2016 in La Reunion, France. ISSF Strategic Policy Advisor Claire van der Geest leads ISSF’s policy engagement in the IOTC and Wetjens Dimmlich is the Indian Ocean Tuna Programme Manager at World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF). 

In the wake of the 20th session of the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission meeting, we join our fellow stakeholders in applauding the IOTC for adopting a harvest control rule (HCR) for skipjack tuna that is consistent with scientific advice. The adoption of this initial skipjack HCR is the culmination of significant work, investment and advocacy by many parties – nations, industry, NGOs, scientists and retailers – and it paves the way for refinement as the management strategy evaluation work continues. Harvest strategies, which include HCRs and reference points, are an essential component of modern, science-based fisheries management.

Unfortunately, there was limited political will to act to similarly protect yellowfin tuna and other stocks that are currently experiencing overfishing or that are overfished. While a reduced catch of yellowfin was adopted, scientific guidance indicates that the agreed catch reductions are insufficient. The new measure amounts to a reduction in catch of about 10%, just half of the IOTC Scientific Committee’s recommended 20% reduction and insufficient to arrest the current declining trend in stock status or rebuild the stocks to sustainable levels by 2024.

There is also a significant risk that, without further action, these measures that are effective 1 January 2017, could result in the fishery breaching the fishing mortality limit and the stock declining below the biomass limit established by the Commission. Finally, with delays of up to two years on reporting of data and the high levels of non-compliance by IOTC members, the new yellowfin measure may be largely unenforceable.

Continued efforts to develop harvest strategies for yellowfin, bigeye and albacore are essential, and we support the Commission’s workplan developed and adopted at its 2015 meeting to that end. ISSF and WWF will support this critical process so that all stocks are on par with the skipjack stock’s management status.

A continued call for harvest strategies

The Commission also failed to respond to its Scientific Committee’s advice regarding overfished stocks like longtail tuna, some billfish species and in relation to sharks. Some parties pointed to a lack of data as a reason to not take decisive action to protect these stocks – a position inconsistent with the precautionary approach the Commission adopted several years ago. IOTC committed to the precautionary approach as part of a decision-making framework adopted in 2012, reinforced in 2015, and in accordance with relevant internationally agreed standards, specifically with the guidelines set forth in the UN Fish Stocks Agreement.

These standards state, “the absence of adequate scientific information shall not be used as a reason for postponing or failing to take conservation and management measures.” ISSF and WWF are therefore disappointed that action was not taken for other stocks that clearly meet the standard of the precautionary approach. And we urge those parties that have not reported their required statistical data to do so as soon as possible and jettison the lack of scientific information as an impediment to precautionary action.

Such misalignment between science and management is common within tuna RFMOs. That’s why ISSF and WWF support the adoption of harvest strategies – robust plans that dictate clear rules and procedures enabling a sequence of science-based decisions, rather than one-off, consensus-based negotiations conducted in crisis mode. ISSF and WWF remain committed to working and supporting continued management strategy evaluation work and the development of an effective HCR for all species managed by the IOTC.


And an eye to robust, well-rounded conservation and management measures

Of course, adopting measures for harvest strategies and reducing the catch of tuna stocks to sustainable levels is not the exclusive and universal remedy to sustainable tuna fisheries. Focus on the implementation of robust monitoring, control and surveillance (MCS) measures transparently implemented by all parties is equally critical and supports modern, science-based fisheries management measures. That’s why ISSF and WWF are pleased to also see the Commission continue to address the gaps in its MCS program.

Significant steps taken included the agreement to develop an options paper for its satellite vessel monitoring system (VMS) measure; endorsement of a program of work that will implement electronic reporting for the IOTC’s Port State Measures Resolution; and adoption of a pilot project to strengthen the implementation of the IOTC Regional Observer Scheme. These steps are crucial to the effective implementation of measures such as harvest control rules. We look forward to supporting this work throughout the intersessional period. In addition, IOTC’s adoption of a Resolution on Vessels without Nationality aligns the IOTC with other tuna RFMOs and strengthens global actions against IUU fishing.

ISSF and WWF regret that a significant amount of time was spent without resolution on IOTC’s internal governance arrangements during this year’s meeting, which left minimal time for consideration of more urgent issues. We hope that these administrative issues can be addressed as a matter of urgency, and are therefore pleased that the Commission endorsed the establishment of a working party on treaty modernisation. It’s a critical step for the IOTC’s future, helping to establish a modern platform on which to continue to build and develop structures to support sustainable fisheries management.

In all, ISSF and WWF remain cautiously optimistic at the direction the IOTC is taking for the management of the resources under its mandate. But in view of inconsistent actions taken with respect to agreements already in place, there is definitely more work to be done. In the year ahead, we will continue to engage strongly in the IOTC to support the efforts of all members to effectively manage their resources.