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Conservation Corner

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Sorry Charlie

Why is the biggest tuna in the sea on the brink of collapse?


Illustration by Scott Pollack

Atlantic bluefin tuna are arguably the most valuable commodity in the sea. A single fish can sell for thousands of dollars, and sometimes, tens of thousands. For that reason, you would assume stocks of these tuna would be managed very conservatively. Unfortunately, that’s not the case.

Back in the mid-1970’s, the bluefin population declined to about 78 percent of the reported healthy stock levels of 1960. This prompted the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) to propose bluefin tuna for listing as a threatened or endangered species. However, the proposal never saw the light of day.

Instead, the United States joined a newly formed international organization called the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT). The mis-sion of this optimistically named or-ganization was to manage these tuna and other highly migratory species in a sustainable manner. As it turned out, nothing would be further from reality. All of the representatives from the various member countries of ICCAT had roots in commercial fishing. Conflicts of interest prevailed, and management failed.

The United States actually exempted the bluefin from management when it created its own basic fishery-management rules in the 1970’s. Since America didn’t acknowledge the species as a fish, it allowed its purse-seining fleets to go anywhere and do anything to harvest tuna. This included fishing within other countries’ legal boun-daries without permission. If another country interfered with the U.S. harvest by confiscating the catch, taking the violating vessel into custody, or fining the offending ship’s owner, the United States would impose sanctions on that country.

It wasn’t until 1990 that America finally recognized bluefin under its management act and became more responsive to other nations’ regulations. This was only made possible with the support of the U.S. tuna industry. The United States knew if it joined other nations in accepting management by the commercially dominated ICCAT, commercial fishermen would still be able to continue overfishing without fear of the regulations. Sustainable management of bluefin remained a vague and distant goal. And while now recognized as a fish, the tuna are beaten down.

In 2008, at the annual 45-member-country ICCAT meeting, the scientific committee for the organization recommended a maximum catch quota of 15,000 metric tons of bluefin that spawn in the Mediterranean (these fish are known to be transatlantic travelers and therefore impact the Atlantic stocks) to potentially help reverse the decline of the species. ICCAT ignored the advice of its own scientists and set the quota at 22,500 metric tons.

The Atlantic fishery has another spawning stock, which has its origins in the Gulf of Mexico (GOM). But these tuna are also devastated. This stock has much smaller numbers compared to the bluefin that spawn in the Med, and these Gulf bluefin were severely depleted during international commercial fishing of the 1970’s. In fact, while there are fewer countries fishing in the GOM and the tuna seem better managed as a result, many consider this fishery in worse shape than the Med stocks. (Many giant bluefin caught off Canada and Nova Scotia come from the GOM tuna. However, some cross over to the Med.) The tuna caught off the United States’ mid-Atlantic region are a mix of both spawning stocks.

Fast forward to 2009. Atlantic bluefin have declined about 97 percent since 1960, according to recent reports, and eastern (Mediterranean) stocks are not far behind. Predictably, with conflict-of-interest-riddled management, the commission has failed in its responsibility to oversee the tuna. In a management study ordered by ICCAT, the conclusion referred to the organization’s own management as an “international disgrace.”

The outcry from conservation organizations as well as environmental and sportfishing groups was loud and clear after ICCAT failed to reduce eastern bluefin quotas. Concerned organizations such as Greenpeace, the World Wildlife Fund, The Billfish Foundation, and others called for the removal of bluefin management from the authority of ICCAT.

Enter the Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), which is a much larger group of 175 member countries. It has the authority to ban international trade on items that come from endangered species such as ivory, rhinoceros horns, sea turtle shells, etc.

CITES met in Doha, Qatar, in March 2009, and one of its member countries, Monaco, proposed an Appendix 1 listing, which is a complete ban on international trade of bluefin tuna. Other countries including Germany, United Kingdom, Poland, Austria, and the Netherlands voiced support for this proposal.

Since Monaco first pitched an international bluefin trade ban, a political battle has been raging between powerful commercial-fishing interests who oppose the ban and some of the world’s largest conservation and environmental organizations that feel it is necessary to prevent extinction.

The European Union (EU) is a major player in the bluefin trade. Several of its members account for a large number of the landings of eastern bluefin. President Nicolas Sarkozy of France at first came out in support of the trade ban announced at the CITES meeting. This was important since it has one of the largest commercial tuna fleets. Later, however, France reversed its position.

October 14, 2009, was the deadline for any country to voice support and back the proposed ban. Although 21 of the 27 countries that make up the EU supported the measure, the Union took the opposite position. This was possible due to the weighted votes of countries bordering the Med, including Italy, Spain, France, Greece, and Malta.

What about the United States? It appears that politics carried more weight than scientific need or perhaps common sense. It remained “undecided,” with the Department of Interior favoring strong support of the proposed ban but the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and NMFS under the direction of the recently appointed Dr. Jane Lubchenco, opposed it. The United States’ support of a CITES ban on international trade of bluefin tuna would have given the proposal much-needed momentum.

At presstime, the annual ICCAT meeting in Brazil had just concluded. The eastern bluefin quota was reduced from 19,950 to 13,500 metric tons and the spawning season closure was extended for one month, but not during peak spawning from May 15 to June 15. A Greenpeace spokesperson said the quota needed to be a strictly enforced at 8,000 metric tons to give tuna even a 50-percent chance of recovering by 2023.

The bluefin-tuna-management ball now passes to CITES. But is it too late?

This article originally appeared in the March 2010 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.