Photo: WWF

In November, fishery managers and regulators will meet in Malta for the 24th annual meeting of the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT). There they will decide whether to implement an electronic system to substantially reduce loopholes for illegal bluefin trade, particularly within the Mediterranean.

Atlantic bluefin tuna populations are finally rebounding after years of unsustainable fishing and, in the midst of this admittedly fragile recovery, catch quotas are on the rise. Unless authorities ensure compliance with these quotas, bluefin could end up back in trouble.

Access to information is a core component of effective fisheries management, and a new analysis of news reports on the illicit catch of Atlantic bluefin tuna in the Mediterranean Sea highlights ongoing concerns about Illegal Unreported and Unregulated (IUU) fishing.

Transshipment at sea continues to provide opportunities to avoid proper catch reporting and to launder illegally caught fish. ICCAT must take steps to ban transshipment at sea until it can be ensured, through proper and effective monitoring, that transshipment operations do not facilitate IUU fishing.

In 2007 ICCAT mandated the Bluefin Catch Document (BCD) that tracks fish as they are caught, transported, farmed, and traded on the world market. Although this paper BCD was a necessary first step in addressing the impacts of IUU fishing, the system needs to be strengthened in order to better detect fraud and deter illegal fishing and trade. Unfortunately, the paper-based BCD has failed to fully address the problems of IUU fishing. Printed documents can easily be altered or forged, allowing illegally caught fish to enter the market.

There has been an effective way to stop this for some time—full implementation of the electronic bluefin catch documentation system, or eBCD. In a recent commentary on ending rogue fishing, key former officials from the European Union, Japan, and the United States—Maria Damanaki, Yoriko Kawaguchi, and Jane Lubchenco—highlighted the benefits of using “affordable, sophisticated technology for seafood traceability.”

“Such efforts—for example, the electronic documentation scheme for the Atlantic bluefin tuna catch—represent one of the most effective tools to eliminate illicit fishing,” the three experts wrote.

On 1 January 2016, Recommendation 2013-13 will go into force requiring that fishing vessels 20 meters in length or greater, as well as all vessels fishing for eastern Atlantic and Mediterranean bluefin tuna, have International Maritime Organization (IMO) numbers. This is an essential ingredient of the eBCD registration system that will help to ensure traceability of catches. The full eBCD system will hopefully be implemented concurrently.

In a very local Maltese context, it is pertinent to highlight once again the plight of the small scale artisanal fisherman who use vessels much smaller than these 20 meters. These fishermen should not be bound by the same restrictive quotas and regulations as the industrial operators because economies of scale render their livelihood at best precarious. This point has often been made with the appropriate local authorities, regrettably with no positive results.

Apart from bluefin tuna, every year about 100 million sharks, an unsustainable number, are caught and killed in commercial fisheries. Whether this catch is highly sought after or unintended and unwanted, managers must take immediate action to counter declining shark populations and stem the damage that caused to marine ecosystems.

These issues will hopefully be resolved fruitfully during the November ICCAT meeting in Malta.

The recommendations above were presented to the Maltese Director of Fisheries, Dr Andreina Fenech Farrugia, on the 5th November 2015 ahead of the 24th ICCAT meeting which was held in Malta. 

George Camilleri