Atlantic fishing nations fail to act to protect sharks, tuna

An Atlantic bluefin tuna is lifted by a crane during the opening of the season for tuna fishing in the port of Barbate, Cadiz province, Spain.
(Emilio Morenatti / AP)

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- Nations whose fleets fish for bluefin tuna and sharks ended a meeting in South Africa without reaching agreement on action to protect critically endangered species, environmentalist groups said.

A proposal to ban fishing of the critically endangered porbeagle shark was blocked at the eight-day meeting in Cape Town of the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT), a body consisting of major Atlantic tuna and shark fishing nations, as well as other Atlantic coast nations, according to environmentalists who observed the meeting.

The porbeagle shark (scientific name: Lamna nasus), known for its low reproductive capacity, was listed in March by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, which requires countries trading in the species to prove they are doing it sustainably after next September.


For the third time, the ICCAT nations also delayed the compulsory implementation of measures to track tuna catches electronically from ocean to port to market, a crucial measure designed to reduce rampant fraud in an industry where the amount of Atlantic bluefin tuna caught in the eastern Atlantic is 57% higher than the catch limit between 2001 and 2008, according to a 2013 study.

Critics say that until stronger measures are taken to stamp out illegal fishing and fraud, tuna catch quotas are meaningless. Much of the illegal tuna fishing, by vessels from wealthy nations such as South Korea, occurs offshore of some of the world’s poorest nations in West Africa.

But ICCAT also failed to take any action to ban vessels caught fishing illegally off West Africa.

The World Wildlife Fund said last week in Cape Town, South Africa, that tuna fishing in the Atlantic was still “out of control” because of false reporting on catches. Last year, it reported that 20,000 tons of unreported tuna was sold, mainly in Japan.

The ICCAT nations did maintain catch limits on Atlantic bluefin tuna. They also announced steps to force large fishing vessels to carry a unique identification number beginning in 2016, after many cases of illegal fishing off West Africa, with ships often changing names and flags in order to evade sanctions over illegal fishing.

“Sharks is where they really dropped the ball,” said Elizabeth Wilson, director of the Pew Charitable Trusts’ international ocean policy unit, which had observer status at the gathering, which concluded Monday. “There was very little discussion about sharks. They barely even talked about it in their meetings, which is very disappointing,” she said in a phone interview after the meeting ended.

“I think there are some countries that are catching a lot of sharks and they have the ability to do that in completely unregulated fisheries and they don’t want catch limits. The end result is that ICCAT is failing to take action on sharks. It’s a really frustrating situation,” Wilson said.

Critics also attacked ICCAT’s failure to take action to protect two other vulnerable shark species in the Atlantic, the shortfin mako and blue shark, as the amount of sharks taken continues to climb.

Sharks are often caught primarily for fins used in shark fin soup in Asia. Critics mentioned Japan, China and South Korea as nations that blocked measures to protect sharks at the ICCAT meeting. Canada opposed a ban on the critically endangered porbeagle shark, according to observers.

An estimated 100 million sharks are killed every year, according to a March scientific study in the journal Marine Policy, which said the number could be as high as 273 million. The study found 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. Protective measures must be scaled up significantly in order to avoid further depletion and the possible extinction of many shark species,” said the report’s lead author, Boris Worm, a marine biologist at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, at the time the study was released.

Wilson said European nations and some other countries at the ICCAT meeting took a strong stance on shark protection, but weren’t able push through protective measures.

“There were some countries trying to be proactive on sharks but it’s the same countries year after year that continue to block these proposals,” she said.

Wilson also expressed concern that after pushing back the deadline to introduce electronic monitoring of tuna fishing for a third year running, fishing nations would continue to delay the system’s implementation in the future. The monitoring system has been pushed back to 2015.

“There is clear evidence of continued illegal fishing in the eastern Atlantic bluefin fishery. Delaying the electronic bluefin catch document system for another year leaves loopholes wide open for fraud and illegal fishing. It undermines management efforts and threatens the recovery of this severely depleted species,” Wilson said.

Sergi Tudela, a fisheries spokesman for the World Wildlife Fund, deplored the lack of action to protect sharks or take tough action against those with a history of illegal fishing.

“Failure to address countries’ failure to comply with rules remains an issue of grave concern,” he said. Tudela said the WWF was particularly disappointed by the lack of political will from ICCAT member countries to effectively address illegal and unreported fishing.


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