The 23rd annual meeting of ICCAT – the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tuna, responsible for the fisheries management of large pelagic species of the Atlantic Ocean – should have taken place last november in Turkey and with the presence of representatives from more than 50 members from the commission, but also of observers from various sectors, namely fishermen associations, NGOs, and others. However, the Covid-19 health crisis led to the cancelation of the in-person meeting, as it did to many others. In its place, a discussion process meant to establish management measures for 2021 took place through electronic correspondence, and its result was the renewal of virtually every measure that was already in place in 2020.
Sciaena took part in this correspondence process as an observer, having submitted initial statements and comments together with other organizations to certain proposals submitted by ICCAT members.
The commissions’ Panel 4 had the responsibility of hosting several of the most urgent debates, and the opportunity to produce some of the most relevant results for the commission in 2020: to adopt conservation measures for the Atlantic Shortfin mako, a stock which the ICCAT scientific body and CITES consider to be in a dire situation.
In line with scientific information and numerous conservation organizations, Sciaena supported the adoption of measures with the utmost urgency, in order to provide mako sharks with the best recovery chances possible in a short timeframe. From the proposals presented by the Commission members, the proposal submitted by Canada, Senegal and the UK was the only one which recognized the seriously worrying state in which the stock finds itself and contained crucial elements from scientific advice, namely the clear call to a full retention ban of this species in the North Atlantic. It is worth noting that this species is captured allegedly by accident, among others, by the Portuguese surface longline fleet, making Portugal and the EU key players in this issue. Unfortunately, the discussions that took place, essentially between the EU, Canada and the USA, did not allow to reach an agreement about the new set of measures to be adopted in 2021. Thus, the measures approved for 2020 will stay, including the possibility to retain this species aboard the vessel and commercialize it, which will surely be insufficient for the recovery of mako sharks.
In light of these events, 2021 will be a year where we must urgently adopt a new pack of management measures, which must have the retention ban as its foundation, in a way of providing the Shortfin mako a true opportunity of recovery and deliver its key role in Atlantic pelagic ecosystems. These discussions will begin in a Panel 4 intersessional meeting, due to take place in July.
Another particularly relevant species for Portugal, which Sciaena has been closely following within ICCAT, is the Bigeye tuna, whose stock in the North Atlantic is essential for the pole and line fishing fleet of the Azores, Madeira and Canary Islands, which operates with a very low environmental impact and is essential for these island communities. The stock is in critical state, which not only causes negative impacts in the health of Atlantic pelagic ecosystems, but also affects the fishing communities which depend on it. In any case, there were no expectations of significant talks taking place in the 2020 meeting, and past measures were simply renewed, which will clearly be inadequate to put Bigeye tuna back in sustainable levels.
It will be imperative that, in 2021, new management measures are defined and approved, with a specific focus in reducing total catches, reducing mortality levels of juveniles caused by Fish Aggregating Devices (FADs), better monitoring of longline fisheries and defining allocation criteria for fishing possibilities. The setting of three intersessional meetings is, in Sciaena’s opinion, a wise decision, as it may allow a peaceful approval of the new and ambitious pack of management measures in the 2021 november commission meeting.
The health crisis has transformed into an economical crisis, to which the global fishing sector has not been immune. Some parts of the sector, as the selling of fresh seafood, have proven to be especially vulnerable. Although this has to be recognized, it is equally important to recognize that the climate and biodiversity crises have not been put on hold due to the pandemic, and still need urgent action. Thus, leadership focused on assuring resilient marine ecosystems is now more urgent than ever, as only with it can the ocean perform its crucial role of sustaining life on Earth, but also allow for sustainable economies and coastal communities to thrive.
Sciaena believes that one of the best and more direct instruments to assure resilient marine ecosystems is sustainable, science-based fisheries management, so it is clear to us that Regional Fisheries Management Organizations in general, and ICCAT in particular, have never been so important, and that they will have to compensate in 2021 for lost time in 2020.
Aside from adopting specific and concrete management measures about Shortfin mako, Bigeye tuna, Bluefin tuna, and several other species, we hope that the pandemic has reinforced the importance of decision-making at ICCAT on three matters: the development and adoption of harvest strategies; increased use of electronic monitoring; and making ICCAT even more transparent and inclusive, not only to observer organization, but to society in general.
The ocean and the animals that inhabit it are under mankind’s custody, so it is crucial that they are protected and managed properly by it. We hope that, in 2021, ICCAT fully embraces this vision.
Note: Every document of the meeting can be found here.