ICCAT and NEAFC fall short in progressing towards sustainable fisheries in the Atlantic

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As in every year, in mid-November, two of the main Regional Fisheries Management Organizations in the Atlantic Ocean, the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) and the North East Atlantic Fisheries Commission (NEAFC), held their annual meetings. Sciaena followed the meetings of both organizations and, despite some positive measures, has once again observed how both are making slow progress on the path to ensuring healthy ecosystems capable of sustaining sustainable fisheries.

NEAFC is the organization responsible for managing stocks of small pelagic species such as mackerel or blue whiting, as well as various deep-sea species and ecosystems in the Northeast Atlantic. In 2023, the 42nd annual meeting of this commission took place in London from November 14 to 17. In terms of conservation, significant steps were taken to protect deep-sea species, with a ban on the capture of the Leafscale gulper shark, a species classified as “Critically Endangered” in this region by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List. This year also saw a deep commitment to the conservation of several sensitive elasmobranch species, now covered by a fishing ban: 9 species of chimaeras, 3 species of deep-sea rays, 17 species of deep-sea sharks, and the Basking shark.

In a meeting marked by various deadlocks and indecisions, it is worth highlighting a positive decision – the opening of the Working Group for the Future Development of NEAFC to observers, allowing for greater transparency and accountability in the decision-making of this management body.

Simultaneously, from November 13 to 20, the 28th annual meeting of ICCAT took place in New Cairo, Egypt. ICCAT is responsible for managing tunas, swordfish, and other large pelagic species in the Atlantic, stocks of enormous ecological and economic importance for the more than 50 member countries, of which Portugal is a founding member. After the 2022 meeting in Vale do Lobo being marked by several positive decisions, the 2023 discussions were characterized by the postponement of crucial and increasingly urgent decisions in the face of worsening biodiversity and climate crises.

Perhaps the most significant was the inability, for the second consecutive year, to adopt a new management measure for Bigeye tuna, Albacore tuna, and Skipjack – the so-called tropical tunas – crucial species for the tuna fleets of the Azores and Madeira and many other countries besides Portugal. In 2024, ICCAT will have to find a way to overcome this deadlock and approve a new measure to ensure the proper state of these three stocks, as only then can the sustainability of the fisheries and the communities that depend on them be ensured.

Another area where the 2023 meeting fell short was in management procedures, which allow for multi-year management with predictability and caution, incorporating conservation objectives for stocks and associated biodiversity. 2024 will have to be a decisive year for ICCAT, as it needs to make up for lost time due to the postponement of decisions that seemed certain ahead of the 2023 meeting – the adoption of management procedures for western Skipjack tuna and North Atlantic Swordfish, the latter being of great importance to Portugal and its surface longline fishery.

Regarding other important species to the national surface longline fishery -the Blue shark – decisions fell short of what is needed. Despite the approval of measures that reduce catch limits and establish a catch allocation key for the South Atlantic stock, these still carry high risks of maintaining or precipitating the species into an overexploitation situation.

In terms of positive notes, approved protection measures for various sensitive species, such as whale sharks, manta rays, and turtles, stand out. Also noteworthy is the approval of provisions related to Remote Electronic Monitoring, a measure that aligns with the recently approved revision of the EU Fisheries Control Regulation that aims to put EU fishing fleets on the path to digitization, traceability, and accountability, protecting fishers and fleets that comply with laws and respect science.

Overall, the meetings of the two organizations are once again marked by a lack of transparency, limited access, and the possibility of intervention by observers (including conservation organizations), and a reluctance to approve clear measures regarding the environmental health of the ecosystems on which fisheries depend, particularly in terms of mitigating the impacts of climate change.

In conclusion, despite positive decisions in both ICCAT and NEAFC, it is important to recognize that these organizations still have a long way to go to be more transparent and inclusive, effectively incorporating NGOs and assuming conservation as their central purpose, including ensuring resilient and sustainable fisheries. Both organizations also need to streamline their processes to make decisions more quickly, with more environmental caution, and considerations not only for the most commercially valuable stocks but also for associated species and the ecosystem as a whole, to mitigate the effects and causes of biodiversity and climate crises, as only then can fisheries ensure their continuity in the 21st century.

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