Unsupported Browser Detected

Internet Explorer lacks support for the features of this website. For the best experience, please use a modern browser such as Chrome, Firefox, or Edge.

United States Leads Conservation Gains in Eastern Pacific Fisheries, Benefiting Sharks and Tuna

September 27, 2023

Fishing panel adopts policies to bar shark finning and reduce ocean waste; adopts harvest strategy for albacore; and pledges to consider climate change impacts in its future work.

Cut sharking fins lying on the ground The IATTC required that fishing vessels land sharks with their fins naturally attached. The goal is to prohibit shark-finning, where fishing crews cut fins off sharks to sell them and leave the rest of the animal to waste. Credit: Shutterstock

Sharks and North Pacific albacore tuna—some of the ocean’s top predators—won new protections from the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission (IATTC). The actions marked conservation successes for the U.S. delegation, who helped negotiate their passage.

“These were important collaborative successes because we had to help bring countries together to support the measures,” said Ryan Wulff, head of the U.S. delegation to the IATTC and Assistant Regional Administrator at NOAA Fisheries. “These measures reflect a united step  forward for sustainable albacore fisheries and shark conservation.”

The Commission is an organization of 21 countries and alliances that govern fishing across the eastern Pacific Ocean. They collectively set conservation measures for tuna, “tuna-like” species, and other highly migratory species such as sharks. Another regional organization, the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission, oversees fishing in the western Pacific.

Protecting Sharks

The Commission explicitly banned shark finning across the eastern Pacific Ocean. The action ensured the ban is enforceable by requiring that sharks be landed with their fins naturally attached. Shark finning is the wasteful practice of slicing valuable fins off sharks and throwing the fish back in the water. The sharks then suffocate because they cannot swim without their fins. The action included some temporary exceptions that will expire in 2026.

An 18-fold increase in fishing pressure since 1970 has reduced the worldwide abundance of sharks and rays by 71 percent. This left three-quarters of these ecologically important species at risk of extinction.

The new shark measure also requires fishing vessels to collect scientific data on all species of sharks, not just hammerhead and silky sharks as previously required.

“Now we will have data on more shark species from more countries, forming a solid foundation to promote sustainable fishing practices,” said Amanda Munro of Ocean Associates Incorporated, who works on Commission policy with NOAA Fisheries West Coast Region.

Considering Climate Change

The Commission adopted a U.S. proposal committing to include climate change on future agendas and incorporating it into stock assessments and evaluations. The proposal also called on the Scientific Advisory Committee to recommend steps that will promote resilience of eastern Pacific Ocean fisheries to climate change.

FAD seen from underwater
Example of a Fish Aggregating Device (FAD) in the ocean. Currently, most FADs are equipped with satellite tracking devices to allow vessels to track them at sea. About 75 percent are also equipped with sonar buoys that help measure the volume of fish congregated underneath the FAD. Photo: International Seafood Sustainability Foundation (ISFF)

Addressing Fish Aggregating Devices

Thousands of floating Fish Aggregating Devices in the Pacific are used to lure tuna to areas where they can be caught more easily. The Commission decided that they must use biodegradable material. The devices also cannot use netting that may entangle species such as sharks or sea turtles. The netting measure takes effect in 2025 and the biodegradable mandate starts in 2026.

Together the measures will keep abandoned these devices from polluting the ocean.

“Together these measures will greatly reduce or eliminate the risk that drifting fish aggregating devices will entangle unintended species and reduce waste accumulating in the Pacific Ocean,” said Celia Barroso, NOAA Fisheries West Coast Region and part of the U.S. IATTC support team.

The U.S. tuna fleet aims to beat the deadlines. That may depend on the availability of appropriate materials, said William Gibbons-Fly, Executive Director of the American Tunaboat Association in San Diego and member of the U.S. delegation this year.

“We thought the resolution on non-entangling and biodegradable FADs was a good outcome, with firm but fair dates for the transition,” he said. “Our goal in the U.S. industry is to be ahead of that timeline, but that may depend on a range of factors we can’t control. We greatly appreciated the extent to which the U.S. delegation engaged and worked with us to achieve this result.”

“Through its adoption of a transition timeline to 100 percent biodegradable devices, the Commission is now the first [regional fisheries management organization] to have an in-force measure for the use of biodegradable FADs — a move we strongly urge all tuna RFMOs to follow,” said the International Seafood Sustainability Foundation in a statement.

Strategy for Albacore

The Commission also adopted the first complete harvest strategy for North Pacific albacore tuna, as called for by the Marine Stewardship Council. The adoption follows a recommendation that the West and Central Pacific Fishery Commission (WCPFC) also adopt the harvest strategy at its next meeting in December. The two actions together would span the Pacific Ocean.

The strategy includes a harvest control rule based on current stock assessments that manages the albacore fishery to remain sustainable over time. Albacore may cross multiple international boundaries over its life cycle, requiring coordination between countries.

“This culminates a very lengthy effort to incorporate science into fisheries management decisions in a forward-looking way so we have predictable responses to changes in stock status,” said Dr. Kelly Kryc, head of the U.S. delegation to the WCPFC Northern Committee and Deputy Assistant Secretary for International Fisheries at NOAA. A management strategy evaluation led by scientists at the Southwest Fisheries Science Center through the International Scientific Committee for Tuna and Tuna-like Species in the North Pacific Ocean involved years of engagement between stakeholders and scientists. The evaluation informed the harvest strategy.

NOAA Fisheries provided stakeholders with a common understanding of the management strategy evaluation, which assesses options for managing the fishery. “Industry stands behind efforts to ensure the stock remains healthy,” said Michael Conroy of West Coast Fisheries Consultants, who represents the fishing industry on tuna management issues and was part of the U.S. delegation to the Commission.

Last updated by West Coast Regional Office on September 27, 2023