Sharks Fare Better Than Tuna at Conservation Meeting

Conservation groups are disappointed that the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) isn't doing more to halt the overfishing of bluefin tuna. The good news from Paris, which hosted the commission's annual meeting that ended on Saturday, is a decision to boost protection for sharks and turtles, which are accidentally caught by vessels fishing for tuna.

ICCAT was set up in 1969 to regulate fishing of tuna and related fish in the Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean Sea. Prized for sushi, bluefin tuna has been heavily fished and stocks have declined dramatically since the 1960s. The population of spawning fish in the eastern Atlantic, for example, is now about 30% of what's considered sustainable.

At its annual meeting last year, ICCAT decided to set catch levels so that bluefin tuna would have at least a 60% chance of recovering by 2022. In October, ICCAT's scientific advisory committee reported that this goal could be met by keeping annual catch limits at the current level of 13,500 tons. Improving the chances of recovery, they added, would require cutting catch levels to below 6000 tons.

On Saturday, ICCAT member countries agreed (pdf) to a 12,900-ton ceiling for eastern Atlantic and Mediterranean bluefin tuna. The environmental group Oceana called the slight reduction a "massive failure" to protect bluefin. ICCAT rejected a bid by some member countries to protect spawning grounds for bluefin tuna in the Gulf of Mexico and the Mediterranean.

Research fared better. ICCAT announced a multimillion-euro research program on the biology of spawning populations in the Mediterranean. In addition, scientific observers will now be allowed on board fishing vessels.

ICCAT also adopted a better system for tracking tuna from hook to market in an attempt to reduce illegal fishing. But some observers are skeptical. The new tracking measures are "meaningless if there's no enforcement," says Susan Lieberman, director of international policy for the Pew Environment Group.

ICCAT did agree to new protections for the hammerhead and six other species of shark that are accidentally caught by fishing vessels. Sea turtles also gained new protection, such as mandating the use of turtle friendly fishing gear in the Atlantic.

ICCAT will meet again in March to hear how member countries plan to implement the new agreements.