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Commercial tuna fisheries represent a significant part of Africa’s fisheries economy, with six species—yellowfin, skipjack, bigeye, albacore, and Atlantic and southern bluefin—among the most valuable fishes on the planet. According to a report from The Pew Charitable Trusts, catches in Eastern Atlantic and Western Indian waters alone are valued at more than US$3.3 billion to fishers and nearly US$11.4 billion at the final point of sale. This speaks to the contributing economic role of these fisheries and the attributed moniker of ‘blue gold.’

Bluefin tuna (Thunnus thynnus) in a tuna cage. Malta. Marviva Med Mediterranean Expedition. June 2008. EUO © OCEANA Keith Ellenbogen.

Annual quotas for these types of valuable, highly migratory tunas are decided during the annual negotiations of intergovernmental regional fisheries management organisations, such as the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) and Indian Ocean Tuna Commission (IOTC). Over the decades, these negotiations have repeatedly come under fire as being inadvertently led by the interests of a small number of powerful nations, insufficiently representing the needs of diverse stakeholders or countries, and for too frequently resulting in quotas that exceed scientifically advised levels.

In the imminent future however, these international tuna and other high-value quota negotiation processes can be revolutionized by the adoption of pre-agreed, science-based frameworks commonly referred to as harvest strategies. This approach is essentially a management framework designed as a set of science-based fishing rules. However, unlike current negotiations, these rules are agreed ahead of time and tested to ensure efficacy via a computer simulation called management strategy evaluation (MSE).

In 2021, a record number of regional fisheries management organizations agreed to implement the harvest strategy approach, but progress and political will is sometimes lacking. Nonetheless, over the next few years, this science-based approach to decision making – which was pioneered in South Africa in the 1990s for its domestic fisheries – should improve the way the multi-billion dollar tuna industry is regulated and can play a role in how African States manage their domestic fisheries as well, following the example set by South Africa decades ago.

The fisheries strategy framework will eliminate the traditional management approach of contentious annual quota negotiations, which often leave African countries in less favorable negotiating positions. Therefore, the widespread adoption of a harvesting strategy approach for major tuna stocks will not only better achieve management objectives and long-term sustainability of the stocks, but also facilitate the achievement of eco-labels (such as MSC), which in turn could provide North African countries with better access to international seafood markets.

In 2022, some key opportunities require the contribution of tuna fishing nations to ensure that these fisheries can continue to contribute to the blue economy. Governments that manage tuna fisheries in the Mediterranean Sea and Atlantic Ocean have the opportunity to advocate for sustainable blue growth throughout 2022. North African states can support this process and demonstrate responsible fisheries management by encouraging their scientists, fisheries managers and stakeholders to participate in the discussions on the harvest strategies for Atlantic and Mediterranean bluefin tuna and Atlantic swordfish that will take place in 2022.

The year 2022 is an important year for all coastal countries to revolutionize their thinking and actions in international fisheries management by adopting a collective approach to conservation, rooted in the restoration of natural resources based on the latest science. Coastal tuna fishing nations can make great strides toward global leadership in this area by advocating for this scientific approach to be applied globally, and without further delay. This is a crucial step in ensuring that African interests are represented in scientific analyses and in securing a strong seat at the international negotiating table, particularly in the run-up to the annual meeting of the International Commission for the Conservation of Tuna in November 2022.