Alejandra Goyenechea, International Counsel
Each year the 21 member nations of the Inter American Tropical Tuna Commission (IATTC) convene to discuss strategies and best practices for tuna management, as well as other fisheries-related issues. Among the topics of concern at this year’s annual meeting was shark management, as sharks are particularly vulnerable to being caught as by-catch in tuna fishing operations. Because the majority of members on the IATTC do not set conservation interests as a priority (and, in fact, often ignore them altogether), it is important that wildlife advocacy organizations like Defenders attend these yearly meetings to speak out on behalf of the nations who do want to promote conservation–oriented fishing practices.
Last month, I attended the IATTC’s meeting in Veracruz, Mexico, to advocate for stronger conservation measures for sharks. In addition to being greatly harmed when they are taken as by-catch, sharks are also sought after for finning. Shark finning is a common practice in the fishing industry whereby sharks are caught, their fins are cut off, and they are then thrown back into the water to die. This practice has devastated populations of several shark species, especially those in the hammerhead family, whose fins have a much higher market value, and whose status as endangered is now critical as a result. One of Defenders’ primary goals in attending the IATTC meeting this year was to support a proposal to require member countries to release hammerhead they may inadvertently catch. Several attempts have been made at past meetings to ban these particular sharks as usable by-catch in fisheries, with no success.
The Commission heard two separate proposals to ban shark finning, one from Costa Rica and one from the European Union. As the Costa Rican proposal included less stringent conservation measures, we helped the two members create and file a joint proposal weighted more heavily towards the E.U.’s stricter guidelines. Though the proposal was not ultimately accepted, getting different multiple nations with differing interests to work together on the issue was a small victory. The Commission also discussed conservation measures for the silky shark, since it is designated as near threatened by the IUCN. I met with several of the Commission’s delegations to make sure they had the information they needed to adopt precautionary measures in fisheries, such as immediately releasing any of these sharks if they are by-caught.
Unfortunately, despite the efforts and proposals from supportive delegates like those from the European Union and the United States, the Commission (which requires full consensus from members to enact policies) voted not to adopt any resolutions on shark conservation. The only measure they passed was one that included language against using whale sharks as fish aggregating devices (FADs, usually stationary floats fixed with sonar that attract fish), a common practice in the tuna industry. This was an extremely disappointing outcome for those of us who work on behalf of the several imperiled species of sharks whose survival is, in part, dependent on decisions made and actions taken by RFMO groups. However, the fact that shark conservation has entered the dialogue at these meetings in recent years, and particularly in this area of the world, is a step in the right direction. Despite the lack of progress at this year’s meeting, the battle is not over. The Commission is slowly opening the gates for negotiations regarding shark conservation, and Defenders will continue to be there informing and supporting nations that are ready to take the next steps in preservation.
For more information on shark conservation efforts being made by Defenders, see the shark identification guides that we distribute to fisheries-related groups.