The International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) concluded its meeting in Cape Town, South Africa, without reaching agreement on actions to protect critically endangered species. ICCAT, currently chaired by Masanori Miyahara of the Fisheries Agency of Japan, is comprised of the major Atlantic tuna and shark fishing nations, as well as other Atlantic coast nations. It has been responsible for conservation of certain marine species in the Atlantic Ocean and adjacent seas since it came into force in 1969.
At previous meetings, ICCAT banned retention of bigeye thresher and oceanic whitetip sharks. Hammerhead and silky sharks can only be retained by developing countries for domestic consumption and catches of these species cannot be increased. However, shark management measures are only as good as the compliance that goes with them and ICCAT appears to be reluctant to strengthen the monitoring of compliance by all its member nations.
An estimated 100 million sharks are killed every year, and the number could be as high as 273 million, according to a scientific study published in March in the Journal of Marine Policy. The author, Dr. Boris Worm, reported that sharks were being overfished far beyond their ability to recover. “Biologically, sharks simply can’t keep up with the current rate of exploitation and demand," he said. "Protective measures must be scaled up significantly in order to avoid further depletion and the possible extinction of many shark species.”
Sharks are caught primarily for their fins which are used in shark fin soup. European nations and some other countries at the ICCAT meeting took a strong stance on shark protection, but China, Japan, and South Korea blocked all measures to protect sharks.
In March, the critically endangered porbeagle shark, scalloped hammerhead shark, great hammerhead shark, smooth hammerhead shark, oceanic whitetip shark, and all manta rays were listed by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), which requires countries trading in those species after September 2013 to demonstrate they are doing it sustainably. All of these species have suffered dramatic declines in their populations as a direct result of fishing and trade in their products, and most are caught within ICCAT’s jurisdiction.
Nevertheless, a proposal to ban fishing of porbeagle sharks was opposed by Canada and blocked at the ICCAT meeting. And ICCAT once again failed to protect two other vulnerable shark species in the Atlantic: the shortfin mako and the blue shark.
While ICCAT maintained catch limits on Atlantic bluefin tuna, tuna fishing is “out of control” according to scientists, due to false reporting of catches. The amount of Atlantic bluefin tuna caught in the eastern Atlantic between 2001 and 2008 was 57% higher than the catch limit, according to a 2013 study, and some 20,000 tons of unreported tuna catches were sold last year, primarily in Japan. Critics maintain that until stronger measures are taken to stamp out illegal fishing and fraud, tuna catch quotas are meaningless.
For the third year ICCAT also delayed implementation of compulsory measures to track tuna catches electronically from ocean to port to market, a critical step to reduce widespread fraud and illegal fishing. The delay undermines management efforts and threatens recovery of this severely depleted species.
Much of the illegal tuna fishing by vessels from wealthy nations such as South Korea occurs off the shores of some of the world's poorest nations in West Africa. Failing to address countries’ refusal to comply with ICCAT and regional regulations is an issue of serious concern. Although ICCAT failed to take any action against these vessels, they announced measures requiring each large fishing vessel to carry a unique identification number -- starting in 2016.