The world’s biggest tuna is less than half the fish it used to be.
I stood on the dock in Bimini, Bahamas, surrounded by the carcasses of a dozen or more giant bluefin tuna, the result of the day’s weigh-in of the local tuna tournament. A few locals descended on the dock with large knives to cut off steaks for dinner. The remains would be towed out to the sharks. Americans didn’t consider the tuna’s dark red meat good enough to eat, and there were so many bluefin. What difference would it make anyway? It was the late 1950s.
Nobody envisioned this fish’s current fight for survival. From a value of just a few cents a pound when it was used in pet food, the behemoth bluefin has become the most-valuable dollar-per-pound fish around. With its high commercial worth, you would think that it would be managed with the utmost care for long-term sustainability. Unfortunately, the opposite is true.
Starting about 1960, the Japanese began longline fishing for swordfish and tuna in the Gulf of Mexico (the only spawning ground for Western Atlantic bluefin). By 1975 the spawning stock of tuna had been reduced by about 75 percent. At that time, the United States proposed to list these pelagics as a threatened or endangered species under the Endangered Species Act. That petition was soon withdrawn when the United States claimed management authority of the waters located within 200 miles of its shores. The Japanese longliners left the Gulf. But there was another problem.
Management of the bluefin biomass has been the responsibility of the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tuna (ICCAT) since 1966. Sadly, this agency has been ineffective in staving off the downward spiral of this stock.
For many years, commercial fishermen increasingly targeted bluefin because of their ever-growing dollar value. Generous commercial quotas set by ICCAT were routinely ignored, especially in the case of the Eastern Atlantic bluefin, which spawn exclusively in the Mediterranean. As recently as November 2010 the headline from a news release by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) read, “Mediterranean Bluefin Tuna Fishery Plagued with Violations Again This Year.”
By 1990, commercial fishing had reduced Western bluefin numbers to a shadow of the healthy 1960 levels. Consequently, ICCAT decided to use 1975 stock levels as its rebuilding benchmark. ICCAT’s own scientific committee recommended that bluefin quotas be set as close to zero as possible. The advice went unheeded.
In the meantime, a group of scientists led by Dr. Barbara Block, of Stanford University and the Tag-A-Giant Foundation, had been deploying satellite tags in mid-Atlantic bluefin to determine their migration habits and spawning origins. The result of this research disclosed that as many as half of the bluefin tagged off North Carolina, which had been assumed to be part of the Gulf of Mexico spawning stock, were really from the Med. This meant that the remaining Western bluefin tuna were actually considerably fewer in number than previously thought.
Each year ICCAT holds its management meeting to consider regulations for bluefin and other highly migratory species (including sharks, billfish, etc.). Some years, the tuna stocks are more or less ignored, and other years’ quotas of both Eastern and Western bluefin are actually increased or reduced slightly. These reductions, however, are never enough to allow for rebuilding.
Last year, due to ICCAT’s management failures, the United States and several other nations went a step further in an attempt to help these prized tuna. They proposed a ban on international trade of bluefin at the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), a large international group formed to protect endangered animals, fish, and plants. The hope was that the ban would remove the incentive of shipping high-value bluefin to Japan, the world’s largest consumer of fresh tuna. Japan, however, led a successful effort to defeat the U.S.-backed proposal.
It’s not that bluefin tuna are a huge financial benefit to the U.S. commercial fishing industry. Even though America is allocated a little more than 50 percent of the Western bluefin catch quota, the total dockside value has only ranged between $4.5 million and $13.4 million from 2006 to 2009, the most recent years of compiled statistics from the National Marine Fisheries Service Stock Assessment & Fishery Evaluation (SAFE) Report for Highly Migratory Species 2010. The same report also states that the total commercial value of all U.S. seafood in 2009 was $3.9 billion, only $41,710,612 of which came from highly migratory species such as sharks, swordfish, and every tuna species.
Last year the Center for Biological Diversity filed a petition to list Western Atlantic bluefin as an endangered or threatened species. The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) has agreed that substantial scientific information indicates the petitioned action may be warranted.
There is concern among some in the recreational fishing community that if bluefin tuna become listed as endangered it will shut down large areas to any offshore sport fishing. Actually, this would not be the case. If it were true, then commercial longliners would be out of business too.
Adding to the bluefins’ woes was last year’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill, the largest in U.S. history. It occurred precisely during the time and in the place that bluefin were spawning in the Gulf. What long-term impact the spill may have will take years to assess, but it certainly didn’t help the fish’s already precarious situation.
At last November’s ICCAT meeting, bluefin tuna were back up for discussion. Ironically, as reported in Commercial Fisheries News, “the latest stock assessment says that under the low recruitment scenario, the Western Atlantic stock is rebuilt, no cuts are needed, and a quota increase is justified.” The commercial industry’s American Bluefin Tuna Association is, of course, supporting this plan.
While there are a lot of opinions on the current state and future of this vital fishery, I don’t think I’ll be seeing bluefin tuna on the Bimini docks again anytime soon.
For more information on the plight of bluefin, go to www.tagagiant.org.
This article originally appeared in the April 2011 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.