A Review of Hits and Misses for Atlantic Ocean Tuna Fisheries

Date: November 30, 2017

I came out of this year’s annual meeting of the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT, the intergovernmental body that regulates tuna fisheries in the Atlantic Ocean) with a mixture of frustration and satisfaction.

Going in, I expected that this could be a likely outcome, with 2017 being a “bluefin year”: When bluefin tuna quotas are discussed at ICCAT, they are all-consuming. Other important topics are pushed aside. This is understandable, since Atlantic bluefin is an iconic species that was seriously overfished in the past. But there are many ecologically and commercially important tuna and non-tuna species under ICCAT’s watch that deserve equal attention and action.

Wins for Albacore Tuna Stocks

There were two important developments at this year’s ICCAT meeting that deserve applause. A great positive development was the adoption of a Harvest Control Rule for the North Atlantic Albacore stock. This has been a long-standing and key advocacy ask for ISSF and other stakeholders. From now on, the members and fisheries involved with this stock have a pre-agreed set of decisions that they can count on to maintain the stock abundance and catches at target levels. I hope that ICCAT will be able to agree on something similar for other stocks soon.

For the first time, ICCAT adopted a measure on Mediterranean albacore. This is the smallest of the 23 major commercial tuna stocks in the world, with catches of generally less than 4,000 tonnes. As such, it always received little attention: Catch statistics are poor; data reporting is incomplete; and the stock was not regularly assessed. But this year things changed, something that ISSF has been working for for some time: The stock was assessed and ICCAT adopted a measure to prevent fishing mortality increases on the stock.

Insufficient Action on Tropical Tunas

The lack of action for tropical tuna fisheries was disappointing. Little was done to address overages in the bigeye and yellowfin tuna catch limits in 2016 which were exceeded by 11% and 16%, respectively.

One of the problems is that ICCAT does not allocate the yellowfin catch limit by country or gear, so the overages cannot be attributed to anyone in particular. At least for the bigeye tuna stock, where the TAC is mostly allocated, some country-specific quotas for 2017 were adjusted as required by the conservation measure. But with 2017 nearly over, I wonder what the impact of such adjustments can be.

This lack of progress on tropical tuna management can be attributed to ICCAT’s lack of clear objectives for the species. Negotiations devolved into finger pointing — ICCAT members that have mostly longline fisheries argue with those that have mostly purse seine ones. This is inevitable in the absence of long-term objectives and allocation between major fishing gears.

By the end of the annual meeting, ICCAT had tentatively agreed to an inter-sessional tropical tuna meeting next year. But there was no consensus on the objectives for that meeting either, with some members wanting to focus strictly on limiting the impact of FADs, and others wanting to address all fishing gears. I hope that the inter-sessional meeting takes place in earnest and that it addresses long-term objectives that fit within ICCAT’s need to develop and adopt robust harvest strategies.

On a positive note, ICCAT adopted a measure to prohibit discards of target tunas in the tropical tuna purse seine fishery. This measure is in line with best practices already established in other tuna RFMOs. ISSF has advocated for this action for years because such a move can help improve the reliability of catch statistics, as well as regional food security.

Strengthening MCS Measures and Action on Short fin makos  

It was also unfortunate to see little progress at ICCAT on improving monitoring, control and surveillance (MCS) measures, specifically priority elements such as: improving the frequency of VMS transmissions; improving observer coverage while safeguarding the safety of observers; and enabling electronic monitoring for major fishing gears. Work on these issues was also pushed to a 2018 inter-sessional meeting, this time of the Integrated Monitoring Measures Working Group.

Also disappointing this year was the lack of action to improve measures and strengthen efforts to mitigate the bycatch of vulnerable species in both purse seine and longline fisheries. A 2017 assessment indicates that the North Atlantic stock of shortfin mako is being overfished and catches need to be strongly reduced. ICCAT adopted a measure that requires the release of these sharks, but it allows for retention under many circumstances. At this point, it is difficult to evaluate if the measure will reduce mortality overall.

ISSF has also been advocating for the strengthening of ICCAT’s shark-finning measure by requiring that all sharks be landed with fins naturally attached. A proposal for this action is now a regular at ICCAT meetings, with somewhere between 12 and 28 supporting members, depending on the year. But it failed to gain consensus once again.

Outcomes vs. Asks

With these hit and misses in mind, let’s recall ISSF’s priorities for the ICCAT meeting this year, and the outcomes against them.

ISSF Asks for ICCAT 2017 Annual Meeting | TUNA CONSERVATION ICCAT 2017 Outcomes

Adopt stock-specific tuna management measures that are consistent with the scientific advice, allocate the yellowfin catch limit by gear and/or flag, and strengthen overall the management of tropical tuna fisheries to ensure compliance with catch limits.

The yellowfin and bigeye total allowable catches (TACs) were not revised. The yellowfin TAC was not allocated. Discussions on these topics were postponed to 2018.

Adopt a tropical tuna catch retention measure for the tropical tuna purse seine fishery.

A catch retention measure was adopted for the fishery. 


ISSF Asks for ICCAT 2017 Annual Meeting | FADS ICCAT 2017 Outcomes

Immediately address the serious gaps that continue to exist in compliance with FAD data reporting, such as through requiring a combination of clearer definitions and clearer instructions on required data and submission forms.

Little progress was made on these topics, and they were postponed to 2018

Ensure that its requirement for non-entangling FADs is being met, and promote research into biodegradable FADs.


Extend the 100% observer coverage on large-scale purse seine vessels to cover the entire year. No progress made, although it was noted that many purse seiners are already achieving 100% observer coverage on a voluntary basis.
Increase the minimum level of observer coverage to 20% for all other major fishing gears and, strengthen CPC compliance by identifying and sanctioning non-compliance through the Compliance Committee. No progress made. 
Develop binding measures to ensure the safety of human observers. No progress made.
Progress the development of E-monitoring standards for longline vessels as soon as possible. A proposal was tabled and discussed but did not gain sufficient support.
Strengthen transparency of these fishing operations, develop measures to require electronic monitoring for large-scale purse seine and longline vessels No progress made. 

ICCAT did not grapple with — or make headway on — many issues critical to ensuring the long-term sustainability of the Atlantic’s tuna resources. While ISSF had asked and hoped for more progress on the range of important issues, we applaud important wins for tuna retention and albacore tuna stocks.

And we commit to continued work with ICCAT members, industry and NGOs on these remaining critical matters in the inter-sessional period between now and 2018 Commission meeting.

About the International Seafood Sustainability Foundation (ISSF)
The International Seafood Sustainability Foundation (ISSF) is a global coalition of scientists, the tuna industry and World Wildlife Fund (WWF) — the world’s leading conservation organization — promoting science-based initiatives for the long-term conservation and sustainable use of tuna stocks, reducing bycatch and promoting ecosystem health. To learn more, visit https://iss-foundation.org/, and follow ISSF on TwitterFacebook and Instagram.