Fishing Nations Split Over Endangered Bluefin Tuna Conservation

DUBROVNIK, Croatia, November 27, 2006 (ENS) - Bluefin tuna in the Eastern Atlantic and Mediterranean Sea are at such high risk of fishery and stock collapse that scientists say the allowable catch should be halved to conserve them. But governments that fish for these giant tunas did not take such drastic conservation measures at a meeting that concluded Sunday in Dubrovnik.

Instead, governments at the annual meeting of the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas, ICCAT, adopted a 15 year plan that allows higher catch levels backed by the European Union over stricter conservation measures proposed by the United States.

Joe Borg, European Commissioner for Fisheries and Maritime Affairs, said the measures agreed by ICCAT, "represent a realistic chance for the gradual recovery of bluefin tuna and, also importantly, for the sustainability of the fisheries, the fleets and the coastal communities involved."


Joe Borg is European Commissioner for Fisheries and Maritime Affairs. (Photo courtesy Office of the Commissioner)
The European position was supported by Algeria, Turkey, Libya, Tunisia, Morocco, China, Japan, and Korea.

"It is undeniable that, in the short term, the new measures will impose sacrifices on all those concerned," said Borg. "But, these measures are essential to the rebuilding of bluefin tuna on which the future ecological, economic and social sustainability of these fisheries depends."

Dr. Bill Hogarth of the U.S. National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration, NOAA, chaired the ICCAT meeting and also presented the U.S. position, which was backed by Canada, Norway, and St. Pierre and Miquelon.


Dr. Bill Hogarth is the assistant administrator for fisheries at the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. (Photo courtesy NOAA)
The U.S. position was in line with the latest assessment of the ICCAT Standing Committee on Research and Statistics, SCRS, which says the current fishing mortality rate is more than three times the level which would permit the tuna population to stabilize at the level of maximum sustainable yield.

"Current fishing is expected to drive the spawning biomass to a very low level," the scientific committee wrote in its October report. "Those low levels are considered to give rise to a high risk of fishery and stock collapse."

In an interview with ENS, Kelly Denit, a foreign affairs specialist with NOAA, said Dr. Hogarth "was extremely disappointed at the inability of the European Commission to put together a meaningful plan that will actually preserve and protect the bluefin tuna stocks."

The Eastern population of bluefin tuna is listed as Endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

The scientists concluded this year that the species is in the "danger zone," at risk of severe decline and stock collapse due to inadequate management measures and widespread illegal fishing.

Measures recommended by the scientists included longer and earlier seasonal closure to protect spawning fish and a reduction by half of total allowable catch, together with strict observation and reporting activities.


Bluefin tuna can reach lengths of up to 10 feet, although they are more commonly found in the three to seven foot range, and adults weigh from 300 to 1,500 pounds. A highly migratory species, they can dive as deep as 3,000 feet and are known to swim long distances. (Photo by Greg Skomal courtesy NOAA)
"Realized catches during the next few years implied by fully implementing these actions are expected to be in the order of 15,000 metric tons," the scientific committee said, half of the current allowable catch of 32,000 metric tons.

Catches could rise to 45,000 metric tons or more with substantial increases in spawning biomass, if its advice is followed, said the scientific committee, but for a long lived species such as bluefin tuna, it will take more than 10 years to realize the benefit.

Instead, the ICCAT meeting adopted a plan that provides for a gradual reduction in the total allowable catch of Eastern bluefin from 32,000 metric tons to 25,500 metric tons in 2010.

And the ICCAT countries failed to impose the recommended fishing closure during the bluefin spawning season of April, May and June for purse seiners, which take 80 percent of the catch.

Instead closures were imposed for purse seiners from July through December, for large longline vessels from June through December and for bait boats and pelagic trawlers from mid-November to mid-May.

These decisions sound "the death knell for Mediterranean bluefin tuna," says the global conservation group WWF.

"Yesterday's verdict gives the green light to overexploitation of bluefin tuna. This is a plan for collapse, not for recovery of the stock, and a mockery of the work of scientists," says Tony Long, director of WWF European Policy Office.

"The EU is not only responsible for the loss of its own credibility, but also of ICCAT's as a regional fisheries management organization," he said.

The plan adopted by ICCAT does increase the authorized minimum landing size for Eastern bluefin from 10 to 30 kilograms (22 to 66 pounds).

During the last decade, there has been an overall shift in targeting towards larger bluefin, and the majority of these fish are destined for farming operations.

Many catches are under-reported because catch levels are not enforced, the scientific committee said. In addition, there is a lack of reliable historical information for many fleets, "therefore severe over-fishing can easily go undetected," the scientists warned.

The ICCAT plan adopted Sunday did impose a ban on transhipment of bluefin tuna at sea for the purse seiners. In addition, all landings of bluefin tuna or transfers to cages will be subject to prior notification and strict control measures.


Tuna purse seiners like this one will have to stop transfers of bluefin at sea. (Photo courtesy NOAA)
All Eastern bluefin tuna caught by purse seiners are now transferred to aquaculture cages for fattening, rather than sold directly.

The fattening of wild bluefin tuna in cages is driven by the Japanese market demand for sushi. Established in the Mediterranean in 1997, bluefin aquaculture has increased the amount of bluefin tuna caught from an already depleted stock by a growing industrial fleet.

One fish can sell for tens of thousands of dollars. The highest amount paid for a bluefin was US$180,000 on the Japanese fish market.

The ICCAT plan covers the next 15 years, starting January 1, 2007. It will be reviewed for the first time in 2008.

The plan includes:

For the smaller population of bluefin tuna in the Western Atlantic, which is the stock on which U.S. vessels fish, the ICCAT meeting reduced the total allowable catch from 2,700 to 2,100 metric tons.