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Meet and Greet with New U.S. Commercial Commissioner for the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas

Geño with catch of the day, St. Thomas U.S. Virgin Islands.

Geño with Atlantic Scombrops - a deepwater fish caught at 1750ft deep, north shore, Puerto Rico.

Swordfish, little tunny and tunas caught by a commercial fishing vessel. Credit: Dr. David Kerstetter, Nova Southeastern University.

Dec 16, 2013

The International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) is an inter-governmental organization responsible for the conservation of tunas and tuna-like species in the Atlantic Ocean and its adjacent seas. A total of 47 Contracting Parties are members of ICCAT, and together these countries work to reach consensus on conservation and management measures for ICCAT fisheries. The United States is represented at ICCAT by a Federal Commissioner (Russell F. Smith III), a Commissioner for recreational fishing interests (Ellen Peel), and a Commissioner for commercial fishing interests. 

On December 5 2013, President Obama announced his intent to appoint Mr. Eugenio Piñeiro-Soler to a 3-year term as Commercial Commissioner to ICCAT. Let’s welcome Geño and hear what he has to say about his role as Commissioner.

What is your vision for ICCAT as the new U.S. Commercial Commissioner?

One of my visions is to ensure ICCAT continues to have strong representation and support by U.S. industry and fishermen. The United States has some of the most robust fisheries management measures in the world. Internationally, we are viewed as a leader when it comes to sustainable fisheries.  It is important to recognize that we could not have achieved this reputation without the enormous sacrifice our fishermen have made and continue to make every day. We need to work to level the playing field for our fishermen, and we do this by promoting internationally the same fisheries management measures we enforce at home. Getting other countries to raise the bar in fisheries management and assisting them as needed in this effort is the only way we can achieve global sustainable fisheries.

What drives your passion for fisheries management and what first ignited that spark of interest for you?

My dad brought me on board a commercial fishing vessel when I was only 5 years old and I have over 30 years of experience as a commercial fisherman, so I know the industry well from the bottom up. Fishermen and biologists have done a great job learning from each other, but management is where the real challenge resides to date. Many managers and policymakers are not aware that in fisheries you are managing people; it is not all about science and technology. It is this opportunity that drives my passion for fisheries management. We need to do a better job understanding fishermen and what their needs are. We need to get managers on the ground to interact with fishermen and get fishermen and industry to understand and influence the management process. We cannot manage fisheries without their continued support and involvement.

Although you represent all sectors of the U.S. commercial industry, you are the first U.S. Commercial Commissioner to come from the Caribbean.  Can you explain why ICCAT's work is important to this region? 

In the Wide Caribbean Region we receive over 25 million tourists every year, which greatly increases demand for seafood. Many of the local Caribbean fisheries are depleted and as a result, there is greater reliance on highly migratory species in this region. This is where ICCAT comes in. ICCAT can play a major role in these communities by providing sound management and improving the conditions and life of these islanders. ICCAT fisheries are crucial because they provide a local food source and income to partner countries in the Caribbean. Not all of the Caribbean countries are ICCAT members, but we all share the same ocean and the same species so everyone in this region benefits from the work of the Commission.  

What do you think are some of the biggest ICCAT successes thus far?

Swordfish is a huge success. In the 1990s North Atlantic swordfish was in trouble and considered overfished, but it has been coming back in great numbers thanks to an international rebuilding plan adopted by ICCAT. Swordfish caught in the U.S. is now one of the best and most sustainable seafood choices out there. Bluefin tuna was in a lousy state and through sound fisheries management is starting to come back as well. But to me the biggest success of all is to give U.S. fishermen the hope and possibility that with sound management they will be able to live a good life and maintain their fishing traditions and livelihood.

It is every biologist’s dream to discover a new species. You have. Tell us about it.

I was working on a cooperative research project on reproduction of deep water snappers with NOAA. During this research project I went many times to the Mona Passage. While fishing there, we kept observing that something was taking off all the bait from our hooks. This kept happening over and over again and we began to wonder who this thief was at the bottom of the ocean. After many unsuccessful attempts to catch it, we finally changed to special hooks and gave them a 10 degree twist and lighter ballast. One stormy afternoon we were fishing at about 2000 feet deep with the new hooks and finally got a bite. When we pulled the line up, we saw the mysterious fish for the first time. “La Griselita” became its unofficial name, named after my wife. But after some discussion we ended up with Odontanthias hensleyi as the formal species name, to honor an old friend of mine, Dannie Hensley. He was an ichthyology professor at the University of Puerto Rico.  By the time I graduated from law school I had learned so much about fisheries from our conversations over the years, that it was the natural choice for me to follow my passion for Commercial Fishing and sustainable Oceans. And guess what, I have never looked back.

Caption (above): Photo of Odontanthias hensleyi (Anderson and García-Moliner (2012), the mysterious fish discovered in 2004 by Captain Eugenio Piñeiro-Soler and Miguel Vargas along the Mona Passage, off the west coast of Puerto Rico. Credit: Dr. Denise De Vore.