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January 7, 2011

Regional Regulations Manage Tuna and Sharks

Management organizations tasked with adding sharks to their species to regulate


    A victim of commercial fishing. HSI

by Rebecca Regnery

Most of the big international Regional Fishery Management Organizations (RFMOs) were created to regulate global catches of the large and valuable tuna fish species. It is difficult to regulate the large commercial tuna fleets fishing on the high seas and they have often come under public scrutiny for their impact on other non-target species such as dolphins, sea turtles and seabirds. In more recent years, their failure to adequately manage their precious tuna stocks has been in the spotlight, mainly due to drastic declines in bluefin tuna populations.

Sharks in trouble

As the number of tuna in the sea continues to drop, the industry is catching more and more other similar large species such as swordfish, marlin, and sharks. The simultaneous decline in tuna and growth in the popularity of shark fin soup is particularly disastrous for sharks. Shark fins are more valuable than shark meat, so many sharks, whether caught on purpose or accidentally, suffer the horrific fate of having their fins severed before being thrown back in the ocean to die, thereby conserving space onboard the vessel for tuna or other more valuable meat.

As a result of this problem, RFMOs have recently started to regulate shark catches. Most of the big RFMOs have now banned the practice of finning by requiring the retention of shark bodies, but all of them still allow fins to be removed from the rest of the shark while still out at sea, making enforcement very difficult. Latin American countries have introduced proposals for requiring that sharks be brought to land whole with their fins naturally attached at both the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT), which manages tuna fishing in the Atlantic Ocean, and the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission (IATTC), which manages tuna fishing in the Eastern Pacific. They failed to reach consensus due to opposition by some member countries.

Slow progress

ICCAT prohibited catching bigeye thresher sharks at its 2009 meeting. The following year, it prohibited catching of oceanic whitetip sharks and most hammerhead sharks unless caught by coastal communities strictly for domestic consumption.

Undoubtedly, some of these actions were taken as a result of the failed attempts by member countries of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) to regulate international trade in commercially valuable tuna and shark species—and to support the view that RFMOs, not CITES, should deal with these species. CITES protection can be added and removed by a vote at meetings held approximately every three years. RFMO decisions can be changed every year and are usually taken by consensus. As demonstrated by the bluefin tuna situation, these decisions are not always based on science, and enforcement is severely lacking. Still, some regulations are better than none.