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The End of the Bluefin Tuna?

The plight of the Bluefin tuna is finally back in the news. Unfortunately, the full, sad story is still not being told. In July 2014, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) said that it is considering a ban on commercial and recreational fishing of the Pacific Bluefin tuna. Scientists have estimated that only about 4% of the fish’s historic populations remain, or approximately 40,000 adults. But a ban is only being “considered” at this point. And there is no mention of the two other closely related species of Bluefin tuna, the Atlantic and southern Bluefin tuna, which are already considered “endangered”. In fact, scientists are saying that the Atlantic Bluefin tuna is on the brink of collapse, while the southern Bluefin tuna collapsed in the 1960s; although both species are still being commercially fished.

The Atlantic Bluefin (Thunnus thynnus) tuna symbolizes the many problems facing the world’s remaining fisheries, including severe overfishing, unchecked and open access in international waters, high market value, and deficient governance at both the international and national levels.

About the Tuna

The Atlantic Bluefin tuna (Thunnus thynnus) is one of the world’s largest vertebrates, weighing an average of 550 pounds and up to 1500 pounds (700 kg). At maturity, it averages about 6.5 feet long. A highly migratory species, the Atlantic Bluefin tuna inhabits a huge range of the ocean on both sides of the Atlantic and the Pacific. It can live up to 40 years and spawns at maturity, which ranges from 5 to 12 years old. One unique aspect of this tuna is that it is warm-blooded. As a result, the Atlantic bluefin can regularly make transoceanic migrations, using its elevated body temperatures to hunt in frigid waters.

Unfortunately, this species is highly prized for its economic value—individual fish can fetch hundreds of thousands of dollars in the famed Tokyo Fish Market. In fact, Japan consumes approximately 80% of the worldwide Atlantic Bluefin tuna catch. The value of the industry is estimated at $7.2 billion per year.

 Tuna Quotas

The International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) is the intergovernmental organization that oversees management of the Atlantic Bluefin and about 30 species of other tuna and tuna-like species in the Atlantic Ocean. Any member of the United Nations can join ICCAT. Currently there are 49 “contacting parties” to ICCAT, including the United States. The Commission’s official charter is “maintaining the populations of these fishes at levels which will permit the maximum sustainable catch for food and other purposes”. (Maximum sustainable catch is defined as the “number (weight) of fish in a stock that can be taken by fishing without reducing the stock biomass from year to year.” Also, widely criticized, but perhaps for another blog.)

Unfortunately, ICAAT has been unable to achieve this goal; populations of the Atlantic Bluefin tuna have plummeted to less than 95% of their historic populations.

The Commission meets biannually to set fishing quotas for the Bluefin, purportedly based on information provided by its own scientific committee. The commission’s managers, however—and not the scientists—are the ones who set the actual fishing quotas. It’s worth noting that these managers often have strong industry ties.

ICAAT consistently has set quotas—known as total allowable catch (TAC) limits—for member countries that are much greater than recommended by their own scientists. In 2008, for example, ICAAT scientists recommended the TAC for the Eastern/Mediterranean Bluefin tuna should not exceed 15,000 tons; the commission set the figure at 22,000 tons, approximately 50% greater than recommended. (In 1982, ICCAT somewhat arbitrarily divided the population of Atlantic Bluefin tuna into a Western population of the coast of North America; and an Eastern/Mediterranean population.) In addition, they ignored scientists’ recommendations that the fishery be closed during the spawning months of May and June, warning that it was in danger of collapse.

Rampant Cheating

In addition, ICAAT scientists have estimated that illegal fishing in the Mediterranean accounts for approximately 20-30% in additional catches. Even with quotas that scientists and conservation groups say are not protective enough, ICCAT members often ignore their quotas and otherwise cheat the system. Illegal and unreported fishing are estimated to account for $23.5 billion annually across the world.

According to a report from the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, France, Italy, Spain, Turkey, and Japan have violated their quotas by misreporting catch size, hiring banned spotter planes, catching undersized fish, and trading quotas. In fact, until 2008, there was no enforcement; member countries did not even report their catches. As a result, there was significant cheating.

In addition, unregulated fish “ranches”—large pens in the middle of the ocean used to hold and fatten caught tuna—are used in the Mediterranean. Typically financed by Japan and placed in laxly regulated countries like Tunisia, Cyprus, and Turkey, these ranches are not policed and are used to “funnel” illegally caught tuna, which are then sold into the Tokyo Market. In 2010, ICCAT started putting “observers” on tuna fishing vessels, but this effort was found to be of limited value.

Conservation groups have lobbied ICCAT members to adopt scientists’ advice. These groups, including the World Wildlife Fund, took their fight to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) early in 2010. They called on CITES to list Atlantic Bluefin tuna under the treaty’s Appendix 1, which would have banned international trade of the fish. Member countries disagreed, saying that ICCAT countries would be the more appropriate body to manage and protect Bluefin tuna. The United States and the European Union had supported this listing. Heavy lobbying by those opposed to the CITES listing, included Japan, Canada, and Tunisia.

Overfishing has become a critical problem in the marine environment, and the future of all global fisheries remains uncertain. The imminent collapse of the Atlantic Bluefin tuna symbolizes the failure of management of marine species that is occurring in virtually all global fisheries. Scientific research is not being incorporated into management decisions. Ironically, ICCAT was developed in response to the collapse of the Southern population of the Atlantic Bluefin tuna in the 1960s. The species has not recovered.

At this point, populations of the Atlantic Bluefin tuna are unlikely to recover because action may have been delayed for too long. At this point, a temporary moratorium on all fishing of Atlantic Bluefin tuna may be the only way to save this species. Unfortunately, this is unlikely to occur.

For more information, here is a list of Resources used in this article.

Elizabeth Striano