Fisheries representatives and environmental activists from around the globe will convene through November 19 for the 21st Special Meeting of the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) in Dubrovnik, Croatia.

An international treaty organization, ICCAT is responsible for the conservation and management of tuna and tuna-like pelagic species (tuna, marlin, sharks, swordfish, etc.) found in the Atlantic Ocean.

Of all the discussion, debate and deliberation this week by the participating ICCAT nations, bigeye tuna decisions will have the biggest impact on Northeast canyon fishermen next season.

Based on a recent ICCAT scientific report, bigeye tuna is currently considered overfished and subject to overfishing. The major issue however is that the current international harvest cap of 65,000 tons set by ICCAT has been exceeded by approximately 20 thousand tons.

“The situation can only get worse if harvests continue to exceed the catch limits that are adopted by ICCAT,” said John Henderschedt, Director at the Office of International Affairs and Seafood Inspection at the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS).

As the Federal Commissioner to ICCAT, Henderschedt is leading the U.S. delegation overseas in Croatia this week and is in a tough position of negotiating the best interests of U.S. fishermen.

“The fact that the quota is being exceeded is really a reflection of the fact that there are inadequate measures in place to ensure that nations collectively do not exceed that quota,” said Henderschedt. “The U.S. does not see its fisheries, (or) its catches, as being in any way responsible for the condition of the bigeye stock at this point.”

Relative to the overall international catch, Henderschedt said that the combined U.S. commercial and recreational catch is a relatively small amount comparatively speaking, less than a thousand tons of bigeye.

“The U.S. is not interested, in any way, in going into the annual meeting from a position of, or anticipating, a loss of quota when our fishers are not responsible for the overages, and certainly not responsible for the fact that the stock is overfished at this point,” Henderschedt said, explaining that the U.S. position does not support any reduction in our own national quota for 2019.

“That said, we ultimately have to ensure that ICCAT adopts measures that have significant conservation impact,” Henderschedt said, adding “We cannot allow the stock to continue to be overfished and subject to overfishing.”

ICCAT is comprised of 52 contracting parties, including the United States which sends a delegation that represents the combined interests of both commercial and recreational fishermen. “The United States obviously has very significant interests in the shared highly migratory fish stocks that ICCAT manages,” said Henderschedt, while adding“commercial fishing and recreational fishing for these species contributes substantially to the U.S. coastal economies.”

“By our count, more than 25,000 U.S. recreational and commercial fishermen participate in fisheries that are within the scope of ICCAT’s jurisdiction and governance,” he said.

ICCAT members attempt to adopt measures and make decisions based on consensus amongst those 52 seats at the table, which can be a challenge for the U.S. delegation, particularly since recreational fishing has very little representation at ICCAT meetings from other nations. Whatever decisions are ultimately made at the ICCAT meetings, NMFS will ultimately be responsible for implementing the regulatory measures to match within the 200-mile U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) constituting federal waters.

“There is always some level of negotiation in order to get 52 nations to agreement, in this case on a very challenging set of circumstances. We will certainly be working to prevent any change or reduction in the U.S. bigeye quota,” he said.

A major international issue that Henderschedt and the U.S. delegation to ICCAT are hoping to exploit this week is the proliferation of fish aggregating devices (FAD) in the Eastern Atlantic commercial purse seine fishery which many experts believe have led to increased harvest of juvenile Atlantic bigeye and yellowfin.

“FAD fishing is an important part of the purse seine industry, the U.S. has fleets operating in the Pacific that very much rely on the use of FADs in their harvest of skipjack and other tropical tunas, but the fact is that within ICCAT waters there is inadequate management," he said.

“We don’t really know how many FADs are out there, how many are being deployed over a given year,” Henderschedt said, explaining how fisheries managers don’t have much confidence now how much of an impact these fish aggregating devices have on the overall harvest. “We’ve very much like to see additional controls, better data and ultimately more efficient management of how FADs are used.

Henderschedt described a fairly comprehensive process for developing positions for the U.S. delegation, and said that after meeting with ICCAT advisors and representatives of both the U.S. commercial and recreational sectors, the delegation developed a firm strategy for heading into this week’s ICCAT meetings.

Also attending the ICCAT meeting in Dubrovnik, Croatia this week as a member of the U.S. delegation is Ray Bogan of Point Pleasant, NJ who has served as U.S. Recreational Commissioner at ICCAT since 2016, along with fellow recreational commissioner Mike Pierdinock of Plymouth, MA.

A similar but perhaps “smaller scale” discussion as Hendershedt put it will take place with regard to blue marlin which is currently undergoing a stock assessment and is currently categorized as overfished and subject to overfishing. As for shortfin mako which was a huge discussion in 2017, Hendershedt believes that more data needs to be compiled as to what impact the 2018 measures had on the stock before any new measures are discussed.

“There may be some discussion on mako sharks based on the available information, but I personally do not expect to see any significant actions taken by ICCAT this year,” he said. “I think next year it’s much more likely to receive additional focus and the current measures given additional scrutiny.”