March 16, 2023
Project Director, International Fisheries Conservation – The Ocean Foundation
The Indian Ocean Tuna Commission (IOTC) is one of the global leaders in transitioning to the harvest strategy approach. IOTC adopted a harvest control rule for skipjack tuna in 2016 and a management procedure (MP) for bigeye tuna in 2022. Development is underway for IOTC’s other key commercial stocks – yellowfin, albacore and swordfish, with adoption expected for each within the next couple of years. That’s the good news.
The bad news is that IOTC is struggling to implement its active harvest strategies. The skipjack catch limit set by the agreed harvest control rule (HCR) has been exceeded in every year since adoption, by 30%, 16%, 18% and 27% in 2018-2021, respectively. This is despite the fact that prior to the harvest strategy (HS) being adopted, catches had only been higher than the HCR-derived limit twice since 1950. In other words, IOTC adopted the HS, and then members increased catch even more than the HS would allow. It was not a case of needing to reduce catch to comply with the limit.
Unfortunately, bigeye tuna does need to reduce catch under the MP, and the same implementation concern applies. Following last year’s adoption, the MP-based catch limit is scheduled to be implemented for the first time next year. Because bigeye is both overfished and experiencing continued overfishing, the first-ever catch limit for the stock will require a reduction in catch from recent averages of around 90,000 t annually to the MP-derived annual limit of 80,583 t for 2024 and 2025. This will be the first ever catch limit for the stock, despite it being identified as subject to overfishing – and potentially overfished – several years ago in 2019.
IOTC has successfully established the size of the catch pie through harvest strategy adoption, but divvying up the pieces of said pie has proven incredibly challenging. IOTC has been negotiating allocation arrangements among members since 2011. The Technical Committee on Allocation Criteria (TCAC) is scheduled to meet for the 12th time later this year, with sadly little to show for its more than a decade of work, given how contentious allocation debates can be. Historical and/or recent catch, development status, coastal proximity, financial and/or ecosystem contributions…these and many more can be factors in allocation negotiations. Even with its independent legal facilitator, IOTC seems unlikely to resolve its allocation arrangements in the near future.
The question then becomes how do members comply with the catch limits for skipjack and bigeye in the absence of an allocation agreement? One option would be to require that any catch exceeding the limit be paid back in the following year by proportional decreases to each IOTC member’s catches from that year. In so doing, recent catches would become an interim share for each member. If those limits were again exceeded, then only the violating members would be responsible for paying back those catches in the following year. None of these temporary shares should be considered as precedent in the overarching allocation discussions. Another option would be to carefully monitor catches in-season and to close the fishery, prohibiting all landings by any IOTC member, once the overall catch limit is reached. But this approach would potentially be less desirable as it could create a “race to fish”.
These or any of a range of other approaches will be necessary to ensure implementation and success of harvest strategies in the Indian Ocean as a bridge until more permanent allocation keys can be agreed. And IOTC is not alone in this problem, as allocation remains a systemic challenge throughout RFMOs worldwide. But if the skipjack limit continues to be overrun, the stock could decline, requiring steeper cuts in the future. Similarly, if the new bigeye limit is ignored, the concerning current status of the stock could become dire and attract unwanted attention from seafood markets, as has been the case for the severely overfished yellowfin tuna. As Pew’s Glen Holmes and I wrote in a paper published last year in Marine Policy, adoption of harvest strategies can free up time to negotiate allocation, and the predictability of future catches under an HS can help to unblock allocation disputes. But until that happens, another backstop must be put in place. This should be a priority at IOTC’s annual meeting coming up in May.