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Despite work to end bluefin tuna fraud and protect silky sharks, more needed to conserve marine life in Atlantic Ocean
Governments at the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) have adopted several important provisions that will conserve threatened fish species—such as bluefin tuna and silky sharks, but failed to act on several pressing matters. ICCAT is the international body that manages tuna fisheries across a quarter of the ocean’s surface, including the Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean Sea.
Good news for bluefin: ICCAT members agreed to implement and fund an electronic bluefin tuna catch documentation (eBCD) system to replace the current paper one, to track this valuable fish from where it is caught at sea to the market. The current paper system is rife with fraud and misinformation, masking industrial-scale overfishing which has widely exceeded legal quotas. Pew’s recent Mind the Gap report found that in 2010, the amount of Mediterranean bluefin tuna traded surpassed the ICCAT quota by 141 percent.
“It is critical to improve the traceability of Atlantic bluefin tuna, a species that has been pushed to near-historic lows. This week, ICCAT member governments committed to making electronic tracking a reality, a decision that will help close the gap between quotas and what is traded,” said Lee Crockett, who directs Atlantic bluefin tuna conservation at the Pew Environment Group.
Curtailing illegal fishing: To help combat illegal fishing, ICCAT governments also revised requirements to list vessels operating illegally. Previously, this applied only to those longer than 20 meters, but now can include vessels measuring 12 meters or more. When in port, government officials will be required to inspect them. There is documented evidence of vessels measuring 12-20 meters using banned driftnets to catch bluefin tuna and swordfish; this decision will help stamp out this illegal fishing method.
Mixed news for sharks: The fisheries body granted a reprieve to one of the world’s most vulnerable sharks, mandating that if silky sharks are accidentally caught, they must be returned to the sea. Cutting sharks loose when they are still alive if caught in fishing gear gives them a real chance to survive. This measure will also reduce the targeting of this species by those eager to sell their fins on the global market. ICCAT members did not adopt measures to protect porbeagle sharks.
“The measure to protect silky sharks is an important step in the face of their dramatic population decline. We congratulate ICCAT members for acting to conserve sharks three years in a row,” said Susan Lieberman, Director of International Policy at the Pew Environment Group. “However, we are deeply disappointed that the international community has again failed to speak up for the porbeagle shark.”
In addition, the meeting failed to make progress on requiring gear alternatives that limit the number of sharks caught, despite available options to prevent this from happening.
“Protecting one shark species a year and adopting no other measures for their conservation will not be enough to ensure the survival of these animals across the Atlantic Ocean,” said Max Bello, senior advisor on global shark conservation at the Pew Environment Group.
Measures for other tunas: Other species gained some protection through efforts to control the lucrative and expanding fishery for tropical tunas off the coast of West Africa. ICCAT agreed to close a small area to the use of Fish Aggregating Devices (FADs) – artificial structures that are deployed in the ocean to attract schools of fish – for two months of the year. FAD use results in large numbers of sharks being caught, along with juvenile tuna. Their uncontrolled proliferation is causing widespread ecological destruction and waste of vulnerable marine life. The members decided to track FAD use and set scientifically-based catch limits for yellowfin and bigeye tuna in the Gulf of Guinea.
“Overall, we are pleased to see some improvements in countries taking their commitments seriously, and movement toward strong consequences for overfishing and breaking the rules,” Lieberman said. “But ICCAT members have much more to do if they are to restore and guarantee healthy tuna and shark populations across the Atlantic Ocean.”
- The ICCAT convention area is 1/4 of the global ocean surface (24.8%) - 89,894,286 km square.
- The Pew Environment Group recently issued a report, Mind the Gap: An analysis of the Mediterranean bluefin tuna trade, which found that in 2010, the amount of bluefin tuna traded globally exceeded the official quota by 141 percent. Two years earlier, that gap was 31 percent. These numbers show that illegal and fraudulent fishing has been occurring.
- The porbeagle shark has commercial value for its large fins and meat and is taken both in directed fisheries and as bycatch (marine life that is incidentally caught by vessels targeting other species and is often thrown overboard, dead or dying). Scientists project that, under current rates of exploitation, this stock would need a minimum of several decades and possibly more than 100 years to fully recover.
- Silky shark fins are relatively high in value and are the third most commonly traded species in the global fin market. Up to 1.5 million silky sharks are traded annually for their fins, which are mostly exported to Asia for shark fin soup. Studies have shown that if they are returned to the sea alive, up to 40% can survive.
- Many vessels use wire leaders to secure their catch on longlines, but scientific studies show that nylon monofilament leaders are better for reducing bycatch and increasing the target catch. When caught on wire leaders, sharks can remain hooked for hours until the longline is hauled back on the boat, resulting in stress, injury, and death. When caught on nylon monofilament leaders, however, sharks use their teeth to bite through and escape. A ban on wire leaders would reduce shark deaths.