International Fishery Management of Atlantic Bluefin Tuna

Due to their large range and highly migratory nature, Atlantic bluefin have a complicated web of management. They do not respect the boundaries of nations’ territorial seas, which extend 200 miles from the coast, and as a result, international management is necessary.

What is ICCAT?

The International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) is the international governing authority for Atlantic bluefin. It was established by treaty in 1966 in response to the already declining numbers of bluefin tuna. ICCAT’s home offices are in Madrid, Spain. There are currently 48 member nations, ranging from North Africa, to Central America, to Asia. The United States, Canada, European Union (considered by ICCAT to be one nation, or "contracting party"), and Japan are among the most powerful members. Meetings of the full commission are held each November to set management measures for the following year.

Management Structure

Atlantic bluefin tuna are managed as two separate populations, a western and eastern, separated at 45ºW longitude. Fish caught west of 45 degrees are attributed to the western quota; fish caught east of 45 degrees are attributed to the eastern quota.

Management Measures

Each member country is responsible for implementing ICCAT management domestically. ICCAT has two different kinds of management measures – recommendations and resolutions. Recommendations are mandatory for member countries; resolutions are strongly encouraged. Click here to download a compendium of all active recommendations and resolutions.

Timeline of Bluefin Management at ICCAT

1974 –
First minimum size established (6.4 kg, with a 15% tolerance for smaller fish)
1981 –
Western bluefin fishery closed; 800 MT quota for scientific purposes
1982 –
Increase western quota to 2,660 MT for 1983;
Prohibition on directed bluefin fishing in the Gulf of Mexico;
15% tolerance for western bluefin less than 120 cm fork length
1991 –
8% tolerance for western bluefin less than 30 kg (115 cm)
1993 –
Reduce western quota to 1,995 MT for 1994, 1,200 MT for 1995;
Limit fishing in Central Atlantic;
Prohibit longline fishing for bluefin in the Mediterranean Sea during spawning months (June 1-July 31)
1994 –
Prevent catch increases in East Atlantic and reduce catch by 25% starting in 1996;
Increase western quota to 2,200 MT for 1995
1996 –
Purse seine fishing prohibited in the Mediterranean August 1-31;
Prohibit catch of bluefin <1.8 kg;
Increase western quota to 2,354 MT for 1997
1998 –
First catch limits for East Atlantic and Mediterranean (Total Allowable Catch (TAC) = 32,000 MT for 1999);
20-year rebuilding plan established for western bluefin: TAC = 2,500 MT until 2018; Prohibit catch of bluefin <3.2 kg;
Purse seine fishing prohibited in the Adriatic Sea May 1-31, in the Mediterranean July 16-August 15
2000 –
Eastern quota reduced to 29,500 MT
2002 –
TAC for western bluefin increased to 2,700 MT for 2003:
Eastern quota increased to 32,000 MT for 2003
2004 –
Prohibit catch of bluefin <10 kg in the Mediterranean Sea
2006 –
15-year recovery plan established for eastern bluefin: quota set at 29,500 MT for 2007, decreasing to 25,500 MT by 2010; purse seine closure extended to 7/1-12/31; minimum size raised to 30 kg; spotter planes prohibited
TAC for western bluefin reduced to 2,100 MT
2007 –
Eastern fishing nations encouraged to submit implementation plans of 2006 recovery plan for review by ICCAT; stock enhancement research promoted; catch documentation scheme adopted to track individual fish from catch to consumer
2008 –
Western bluefin rebuilding plan was revised. TAC reduced to 1,900 MT for 2009 and 1,800 MT for 2010. Rollover of underharvest limited to 10% starting in 2010.
Eastern bluefin recovery plan was revised. TAC reduced to 22,000 MT for 2009, decreasing to 18,500 MT by 2011. Spawning area purse seine closure extended to 6/15-5/15. New measures to reduce capacity and improve compliance.
2009 –
Eastern bluefin recovery plan was revised. TAC reduced to 13,500 MT. Spawning area purse seine closure extended to 6/15-4/15. New measures to reduce capacity and improve compliance.
2010 –
Western bluefin rebuilding plan was revised. TAC reduced to 1,750 MT. Rollover of underharvest capped at 10% of base quota. Mexico and others were added to the allocation key, giving them a dedicated quota share.
Eastern bluefin recovery plan was revised. TAC reduced to 12,900 MT. New measures to reduce capacity and improve compliance.

Other ICCAT Roles

In addition to prescribing management regulations, ICCAT also compiles catch statistics submitted by member countries, monitors bluefin tuna trade and penalizes countries and vessels that do not comply with ICCAT recommendations. ICCAT also plays a major role in coordinating scientific research. The Standing Committee on Research and Statistics (SCRS) convenes stock assessments, encourages specific studies (e.g., assessments of mixing rates of the western and eastern stocks), and provides a forum for sharing and analyzing tagging, genetics, and other data.

Key Issues

Meetings of Panel 2, the ICCAT group charged with bluefin management, are often the most attended and most controversial of the ICCAT week. There are many players, many unknowns and a lot of money at stake.

Population Structure & Mixing Rates:

Alternative spatial management proposed for Atlantic bluefinThe most contentious issue at present is the question of eastern vs. western. The current management structure assumes limited mixing of the two populations over the 45 degree stock boundary line. Tagging data, including those provided by the TAG team, have provided evidence for substantially more mixing of the two populations than previously thought.  The problem? The western quota is 1,750 MT; the eastern quota is much higher at 12,900 MT. The severely depleted western stock is thus vulnerable to extensive overfishing in the East Atlantic whenever a western fish migrates east of 45 degrees. ICCAT is exploring alternative management structures (see example at right), including separate Gulf of Mexico, Atlantic, and Mediterranean management units and/or moving the stock boundary line further east.

Still others argue that the higher mixing rates suggest that there is only one population of Atlantic bluefin tuna, with fish spawning randomly in the Gulf of Mexico, Mediterranean Sea, or elsewhere. This theory supports universal management for all Atlantic bluefin, with no dividing line. However, scientific data, including electronic tagging, genetics, and microconstituent analysis, strongly support the presence of distinct western and eastern populations.

Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated (IUU) Fishing:

Whether or not they are members of ICCAT, many countries and/or vessels refuse to play by the rules. Countries will purposefully underreport catch levels, vessels will fish under the flag of other nations to evade regulations, or fishermen will ignore minimum size limits, gear restrictions or closed areas. Several “non-contracting parties” fish for bluefin, even if they don’t participate in ICCAT meetings or have a quota allocation. Scientists from ICCAT and the environmental group WWF indpendently estimated that the 2007 catch in the East Atlantic and Mediterranean was likely greater than 60,000 MT, a greater than 50% exceedance of the quota. Compliance has improved in recent years but is still a hurdle in the quest for sustainable management.

Bluefin Farming or Ranching:

Mediterranean farm - © WWF Tuna farming has emerged as a major fishery practice in the Mediterranean Sea. Bluefin are caught in purse seines and transferred to pens where they are held and fed until their fat content and market conditions are ideal. Farming is confounding from a statistical perspective, especially when the country that caught the fish is different from the country that farmed and/or killed the fish. Against which country’s quota is the fish counted? Which weight is recorded – at catch or at death? Tuna farms are also controversial due to the high volume of forage fish harvested to feed the captive bluefin (potentially reducing the baitfish available to wild bluefin) and the potential for coastal pollution from the dense population of penned fish.