NOAA 2001-R152
Contact: Gordon Helm


The annual meeting of the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas ended last week without final agreement on several key measures because of U.S. opposition to continuing overharvest practices by Eastern Atlantic fishing nations of the highly-prized Atlantic bluefin tuna.

The U.S. delegation attending the ICCAT meeting in Spain was deeply disappointed that members ignored scientific advice to reduce catch of Atlantic bluefin tuna, then failed to finalize actions that would conserve and rebuild several Atlantic fish populations and better protect bycatch species such as sharks, sea turtles and seabirds.

"We took a tough stance to protect Atlantic bluefin tuna stocks because we could not accept a harvest level that is clearly inconsistent with scientific advice," said Rolland Schmitten, U.S. ICCAT Commissioner. "The United States, its recreational and commercial fishing groups, and environmental and conservation organizations have worked through ICCAT to adopt a recovery plan that has successfully arrested the decline of the western Atlantic bluefin tuna stock. It is now time for Eastern Atlantic fishing countries to adopt similar management steps in the face of the scientific evidence."

Atlantic bluefin tuna are extremely valuable to the Japanese sushi market which accounts for 95 percent of the international trade in this species. The stock is currently far below its historic biomass level. ICCAT was formed to provide a forum to internationally manage these populations at levels that support the maximum sustainable catch.

During the final session, the United States, Canada and Korea blocked a movement to support a European Community proposal to raise the quota for Eastern Atlantic bluefin tuna fishermen. The United States opposed the increase because of scientific evidence indicates the quota should be reduced, and that Eastern Atlantic fishing activities have a significant impact on Western Atlantic bluefin tuna stocks because of stock mixing.

An independent study, led by noted tuna researcher Barbara A. Block of Stanford University and funded in part by the National Marine Fisheries Service found that Atlantic bluefin often are traveling throughout the entire North Atlantic and, in some cases, into the Mediterranean Sea. An article reporting the findings of this five-year study was published in the Aug. 17 issue of the journal Science, and was co-authored by Eric D. Prince of NOAA Fisheries.

The Science article reported that individual bluefin tuna also migrated from the Western Atlantic to the east and back again in the same year, and that the western-tagged bluefin travel to distinct spawning grounds in the Gulf of Mexico or the Eastern Mediterranean. The results indicated that western-tagged bluefin are vulnerable to fishing from all Atlantic bluefin tuna fisheries.

Due to a lack of time for a full discussion of the proposals, the commission chair recessed the annual meeting of 31 fishing nations without reaching any final decisions on catch levels or conservation measures. The recess leaves open the possibility that member fishing nations could ignore previous harvest restrictions.

Even though the meeting recessed without many final decisions being made, numerous resolutions and recommendations were approved by sub-committees. There is a provision under the ICCAT charter that allows for ballots on measures to be approved through a mail-in response process. The United States fully expects to press for adoption of the measures that include:

  • ICCAT's first-ever resolution to adopt voluntary management measures for sharks and require data collection to prepare for Atlantic blue and mako shark stock assessments in 2004.
  • An Atlantic bluefin tuna mixing resolution that supports scientific research to better understand tuna movements.
  • A resolution that would evaluate the effects of time/area closures to protect small swordfish.
  • An amendment to the Atlantic blue marlin/white marlin rebuilding plan that keeps current management measures in place and plans for future marlin stock assessments.
  • A recommendation to establish programs to track the trade of bigeye tuna and swordfish.
  • A number of tools to fight Illegal, Unreported, and Under reported fishing, including a management standard for large-scale longline vessels.
  • Proposals to collect bycatch data on seabirds and sea turtles.

The United States is represented on ICCAT by three U.S. Commissioners appointed by the President. Schmitten has been the federal commissioner to ICCAT since 1997. He's also the director of the Office of Habitat Conservation within the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's National Marine Fisheries Service, under the Department of Commerce. Glenn Delaney is U.S. Commissioner representing the commercial fishing industry. Robert Hayes attended as interim commissioner on behalf of the recreational fishing sector, pending a final decision on this presidential appointment.