Tuna, Conservation and ICCAT

Tuna is one of the most popular and widely eaten food fish in the world, but the intensive commercial pressure on this species means that many tuna stocks are depleted, with some tuna species being reduced to the point of near extinction. Attempts to reduce the intensity of tuna fishing and allow stocks to recover have proved ineffective with the ICCAT – the organisation which is responsible for managing and protecting tuna species – coming in for particular criticism due to its ineffective attempts to stop the decline.

Tuna Species

Although many people do not differentiate between tuna there are in fact eight species of true tuna and a number of other related tuna-like species. There is a great deal of difference in the sizes between species: the largest, most intensively fished and most valuable is the Atlantic bluefin tuna which can be 14-15ft in length, weigh 1500lb and sell for tens of thousands of pounds, whereas the much smaller, cheaper and more numerous skipjack tuna grows to a maximum size of around three feet in length. The division between the different tuna groups is shown below:

Tuna Groups

Behaviour and Feeding

Tuna are adapted to swim at great speeds. They have powerful, streamlined bodies and slim, stiff fins which help them achieve both great acceleration and top speed – the fastest species of tuna is the yellowfin which is thought to be able to reach speeds of up to 50mph. This speed is helped by the fact that tuna can conserve heat which has been produced by muscles which allows them to raise their body temperature higher than the water they are in means that tuna can live in a wide range of sea temperatures.

Tuna Species

Tuna are a shoaling fish which can live in vast groups and most tuna species have been observed showing signs of distress if they become separated from their shoal. Tuna are predators which feed on smaller fish such as herring and mackerel, with even huge fully grown bluefin tuna preferring to hunt these species rather than larger prey.

Conservation, Overfishing and ICCAT

ICCAT (International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas) is an intergovernmental organisation which is responsible for the conservation of tuna and related species in both the Atlantic Ocean, and other seas which connect to the Atlantic. While the aims of ICCAT are well intentioned the organisation has been heavily criticised over a number of decades by a wide range of different organisations and groups for its perceived failure to protect tuna.

Bluefin Tuna Catches

Bluefin tuna catches have declined since the 1950s.

Most of this criticism is based on ICCAT’s failure to halt the decline of tuna stocks and its reluctance to put in force any measures which would reduce the levels of commercial fishing for tuna. ICCAT is often seen as putting the short-term demands of the commercial tuna fishing industry ahead of the long-term sustainability of tuna species. For these reasons conservationists often claim that the acronym ICCAT should stand for the International Conspiracy to Catch All Tuna.

Background and Operations of ICCAT

Most tuna species live and feed far out to sea and migrate great distances. This means that they are out of the jurisdiction of any single nation, meaning that an international intergovernmental organisation was seen as the best way of managing the stocks of tuna and controlling the commercial exploitation of the species. This led to the creation of ICCAT in 1966, with the convention formally coming into force in 1969.


ICCAT is responsible for managing tuna stocks.

The ICCAT convention area covers around one quarter of the entire world’s oceans. ICCAT carries out research in the areas of ecology and oceanography with a particular emphasis on the ways in which commercial fishing effects the stock abundance of tuna and tuna-like species. As well as this ICCAT complies data on the long-term trends of tuna stocks and also gathers data on other species which may be caught as bycatch during tuna fishing. Currently, forty-nine parties are members of ICCAT, including Japan, the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom and the European Union. The official languages of ICCAT are English, French and Spanish. While ICCAT’s research and regulations cover over thirty species the organisations lists the following as being the main species of direct concern to its operations:

  • Atlantic bluefin tuna (Thunnus thynnus)
  • Skipjack tuna (Katsuwonus pelamis)
  • Yellowfin tuna (Thunnus albacares)
  • Albacore tuna (Thunnus alalunga)
  • Bigeye tuna (Thunnus obesus)
  • Swordfish (Xiphias gladius)
  • White marlin (Tetrapturus albidus)
  • Blue marlin (Makaira nigricans)
  • Sailfish (Istiophorus albicans)
  • Spearfish (Tetrapturus pfluegeri)
  • Spotted Spanish mackerel (Scomberomorus maculatus)
  • King mackerel (Scomberomorus cavalla)
  • Black skipjack tuna (Euthynnus alletteratus)
  • Frigate tuna (Auxis thazard)
  • Atlantic bonito (Sarda sarda)


There are many examples of ICCAT’s mis-management of Atlantic tuna stocks, with many conservation organisations claiming that ICCAT’s track record of sustained failure means that it is unfit for purpose and needs to be either completely reformed or abolished and replaced with a new organisation. Some of the criticisms of ICCAT are detailed below.

By the early 1980s it was apparent that industrial fishing of tuna had decimated stock levels and a major reduction in commercial fishing intensity was necessary to allow stocks to rebuild. In 1981 ICCAT stated that tuna catches should be as near to zero as possible and sets a limit of 1,160 tons. Within a year this is increased to 2,260 tons and by 1999 pressure from the commercial fishing industry meant that ICCAT had raised the maximum tuna limit at 32,000 tons. Source.

In 2009 it is estimated that the stock of Atlantic bluefin tuna is around 15% of its size before industrial commercial fishing began. Despite this ICCAT sets the next years quota at 13,500 tons, leading Susan Lieberman, Director of International Policy for the Pew Environment Group to say:

“Since its inception, the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas has been driven by short-term commercial fishing interests, not the conservation ethic implied by its name . . . Only a zero catch limit could have maximized the chances that Atlantic bluefin tuna could recover to the point where the fishery could exist in the future.” Source.

In late 2010 it emerged that the 2009 quota, widely regarded as far too high by conservation groups, would be cut by only 4%, meaning that 12,900 tons would be caught each year. Scientists had warned that the quota should be no higher than 6,000 tons if the numbers of bluefin tuna were to recover. The idea of no fishing zones was also dismissed by ICCAT. This led to Dr. Sergi Tudela, Head of World Wildlife Fund’s Mediterranean’s Fisheries Programme to say:

“After years of observing ICCAT and countless opportunities to do the right thing, it is clear to us that the commission’s interests lie not in the sustainable harvesting of bluefin tuna but in pandering to short-term business interests.” Source.

Greenpeace also stated that the word ‘conservation’ should be removed from the name of ICCAT.

Further problems are that due to illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing of tuna the true catch levels could be double official figures, meaning that ICCAT should take an even stronger approach to cutting quotas. Furthermore, as all tuna species are under such immense commercial pressure the average size of tuna caught in the ICCAT area has been consistently reducing over the past few decades, as more individual fish are needed to reach quotas. The result of smaller and smaller fish being caught is that many fish are being taken from the sea before they have had a chance to reproduce themselves.

Tuna Fishermen

Today there is a increasing number of fishermen targeting a declining number of tuna.

One of the fundamental problems with ICCAT is that it has no powers of its own to penalise countries for overfishing – the power to enforce rules lies with individual countries and the European Union itself. For example ICCAT banned commercial tuna fishing operations from using spotter planes to track down tuna shoals, but this practice still appears to be widespread, and until individual nation states decide to take action to stop this practice it will continue. It is believed by many that in the ultra-competitive tuna fishery so much money is at stake that disregarding the rules is common. With such cheating widespread national governments are reluctant to punish their own fishermen, for the simple reason that everyone else is cheating, so playing by the rules would simply mean less money for their fishermen and make little difference in terms of the conservation of the species.

The Future

Today the outlook for all large tuna species is bleak. Half-hearted and widely ignored conservation measures mean that tuna numbers are constantly reducing and commercial fishermen are hunting down an ever-smaller number of tuna. However, the increasing scarcity of tuna means that the value of individual fish remains high, and the increasingly complex technology available to commercial fishermen means that they can easily hunt down whatever tuna are left. The immense irony is that if stocks were given a chance to rebuild fishermen would be able to catch more tuna with less effort, and more people could gain employment within the commercial fishing industry.

Related article: Atlantic Bluefin Tuna

Indeed, one of the most famous names in the world of tuna has spoken out about the state of the world’s tuna stocks. Japanese chef Jiro Ono is a 93-year old sushi master who founded and owns the three Michelin starred restaurant Sukiyabashi Jiro, and was the star of the award winning 2011 film Jiro Dreams of Sushi. In late 2014 he spoke out to say that he was concerned that tuna would not be around for future generations.

Jiro Ono

Jiro Ono, left, preparing sushi for US President Barack Obama and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

The existence of a greedy commercial fishing industry interested only in short term profit, and an utterly toothless ICCAT falling over themselves to protect too-high quotas, the chances of anything other than ever diminishing tuna stocks looks remote.

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