ICCAT decide on 2023 bluefin quota

November 13th to the 21st 2022 saw the 23rd Special meeting of ICCAT (International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Bluefin Tuna) at Vale de Lobo in Portugal. 

During November 2022 52 member states and numerous NGO’s and corporate sector bodies were represented at the significant periodic gathering of the body responsible for the management of Atlantic Bluefin Tuna amongst many other species of note across the North and South Atlantic.

Triannual meeting

Typically, these meetings occur every three years and following presentations on the health of Atlantic bluefin tuna stocks from ICCAT’s scientific arm, the SCRS, and after much discussion, lobbying and horse trading some agreement would be reached on the level of quota to be set for the following three years and the distribution of that quota amongst the quota holding members. 

After decades of mismanagement, and with bluefin heading to effective extinction as a commercial species in the early part of this century, ICCAT finally got it’s act together around 2007 and brought in significant policy changes that allowed the decline in stocks to not only be halted but to then start to recover in the early part of the last decade.  

Whilst there has been an irrefutable turnaround in the fortunes of bluefin tuna since 2010, every previous meeting saw unrelenting pressure from politicians and commercial fishing lobbyists to increase quota levels, often pushing the absolute boundaries of what the scientists saw as prudent. 

The uncertainties in the assessment process and this constant lobbyist influence were a real threat to what was otherwise a genuine conservation success story. 

Several years ago ICCAT began work on a new ‘Management Strategy Evaluation’, which was intended to address many of these concerns. As a result, a new ‘Management Process’ (‘MP’) was put forward. This is a combination of much more robust modelling tools and analysis, and a largely automated policy recommendation process, (regarding quota levels).

At this meeting ICCAT members adopted that new ‘Management Plan’ that came out of the MSE. Going forward, the quotas have been set for three years and the management plan (MP) process will be monitored and updated in 2025 to again determine the right quota level for 2026-2028.

It remains to be seen just how much more accurate, robust and resilient to political interference the new MP will be, but this is a big potentially positive step forward.

So what did the first assessment and recommendation tell us last week?

The recovery in stocks still seems to be underway, with uncertainties still revolving around the precise extent of the recovery over the last 12 years. Is the stock at three times or five times above the lows of the early 2000s?

A cautious tone is warranted but the new process still delivered a recommendation for further Quota increases for Atlantic bluefin from 2023.

Regarding the larger BFT-E stock, the quota reached 36,000t in 2020, (a new all time record). This was rolled over for 2021 and 2022 given Covid related limits upon stock assessment processes and the aforementioned uncertainty re the precise extent of the recovery and the absolute stock spawning biomass. 

The first output from the new Management Process determined to INCREASE further the total Eastern Atlantic/Mediterranean quota from 36,000t. 
Quota levels were increased by 4,570t, a 12.7% increase taking it to 40,570t for 2023, 2024 and 2025. 

The smaller ‘Western Atlantic’ stock saw confirmation of an ‘out of cycle’ increase in quota levels agreed last year of 16% from 2,350t to 2,726t from 2023.

Within the EA/Med quota changes, the largest absolute increase went to the EU, from 19,410t to 21,503t, an uplift of 2,093t, 10.5%. 

As the EU held around 54% of the 36,000t it is not surprising they got the biggest tonnage increase, but the biggest percentage increases went to smaller Mediterranean facing members:

Albania, (55% to 264t), Egypt, (55% to 513t), and Syria, (61% to 129t).

Some of those may raise more eyebrows than the current choice of World Cup venue. 

What of the UK? Yes, for the first time since leaving the EU and joining ICCAT as a sovereign member, the UK was represented in its own right at this meeting.

Those who follow this closely may recall that as part of the EU/UK Trade and Co-operation Agreement, (the TCA or ‘divorce deal’) signed in December 2020, the UK obtained a very small amount of Atlantic Bluefin quota. The EU passed across 0.25% of their existing quota, amounting to 48.4t.

In 2021 and 2022 the only use this quota was put to was to cover bycatch in specified commercial fisheries in England, (of which one fish can be sold from each trip), and mortalities in the CHART programmes we helped to win and design. 

Last week the UK’s quota saw a small increase agreed at this meeting, to 63t, (an increase of 34%). 

The UK has the smallest quota of all ICCAT quota holding members with the exception of Namibia, who were granted 50t for the first time ever at this meeting. 

DEFRA et al will in coming months be deciding to what use this 63t of quota may be put in 2023 and beyond. We will be coming back to this topic in coming weeks.