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Showdown for the Bluefin and Endangered Species Status 2010

In November 2006, we published the second chapter of a series on commercial fishing, “One Fish Lost.” (Readers can view the entire series on www.allatsea.net.) The species highlighted in that chapter was the Bluefin Tuna:

“One of the more desirous fish in the sea, the Bluefin tuna is highly prized in sushi and sashimi served to Japanese diners who are willing to pay exorbitant prices. In 2001, a Bluefin weighing 444 pounds was sold at a Japanese auction for US $175,000 while the average price for a Bluefin of lesser size is around US $45,000 …”

“Prior to the early 1970s, Bluefin tuna meat was sold for around five cents per pound. With the increase in popularity of sushi and sashimi, particularly in Japan, the price soared and Bluefins have been hunted to the brink of extinction. Both the Western and Eastern Bluefins are red-listed by IUCN (the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources or World Conservation Union.) Current estimates put their populations at a mere 10 percent of pre-1970 numbers – a loss of 90 percent in less than 40 years.”

“One Fish Lost” was written almost four years ago, yet little has changed that will insure the preservation of the Bluefin tuna; many scientists and conservationists believe the situation has actually worsened.

ICCAT, The International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas, a multi-governmental organization charged with regulating tuna fisheries in a sustainable manner, was established in 1969. The preamble to ICCAT’s founding charter states, “The Governments whose duly authorized representatives have subscribed hereto, considering their mutual interest in the populations of tuna and tuna-like fishes found in the Atlantic Ocean, and desiring to co-operate in maintaining the populations of these fishes at levels which will permit the maximum sustainable catch for food and other purposes, resolve to conclude a Convention for the conservation of the resources of tuna and tuna-like fishes of the Atlantic Ocean …”

Yet, during the 40 years that ICCAT has allegedly managed Bluefin tuna catch limits, the Bluefin’s populations have decreased by 80-90 percent depending on which scientific study one reviews. Why?

ICCAT’s own scientific studies have repeatedly shown that the annually established catch limits are much too high for a sustainable fishery. In addition, ICCAT as well as individual member states’ fisheries regulatory boards have long known that legal catches are under-reported and illegal Bluefin tuna catches are extremely high, estimated at 30-50 percent of the annually established legal limits, thus adding to the decimation of the species.

After attending ICCAT’s 21st Commission meeting in Brazil this past November, Sue Lieberman, the director of international policy for the highly regarded Pew Environment Group stated, “Since its inception, the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas has been driven by short-term commercial fishing interests, not the conservation ethic implied by its name …”

Based on ICCAT’s almost non-existent record of regulating Bluefin tuna, some conservation groups now refer to ICCAT as the International Commission to Catch All Tuna. In response to international pressure, a result of ICCAT’s disregard of science and some individual member countries imposing their own regulations in an attempt to rebuild the species, the commission agreed in 2007 to develop a multi-annual recovery plan.

This plan was to include reduced catch limits, area closures, particularly for the Eastern Bluefin in the Mediterranean, more accurate reporting of catches, and increased enforcement of rules and regulations. While catch limits were reduced, studies confirm the limits remain too high to support species recovery so Bluefin tuna move closer and closer extinction.

Because ICCAT persists in ignoring the science and fails miserably in enforcement, the last hope for Bluefin tuna appears to be approval of a proposal that will be submitted by Monaco during the March 2010 meeting of CITES. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, an agency of the United Nations, will be asked to place both Eastern and Western Atlantic Bluefin tuna on the CITES Appendix 1 listing. An Appendix 1 listing would ban all international trade while preserving domestic fishing for local markets.

In the proposal Monaco states, “At this stage we believe that the time for CITES to intervene is long overdue … ICCAT consistently set catch quotas above levels recommended by its scientists and the failure of its management measures is demonstrated by the continuously decreasing population.”

Nations supporting Monaco’s proposal include France, Germany, Britain, the Netherlands, and the United States. The US Department of Interior and NOAA have issued statements of support for a CITES Appendix 1 listing. Dr. Jane Lubchenco, NOAA administrator stated, “We are sending a clear and definitive statement to the international community that the status quo is not acceptable.” Nicolas Sarkozy, the President of France, stated that France would support Monaco’s CITES proposal. Many scientists, including ICCAT’s, Dr. Russell Nelson of The Billfish Foundation, Dr. Sergei Tudela of World Wildlife Fund, and many, many others around the world support the CITES Appendix 1 listing – all stating that the Bluefin species will not survive if ICCAT maintains the status quo.

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