It’s time for the US to have some balls and fully support a trade ban

Bluefin are screwed.  I hate to be blunt, but that’s the case with these fish, plain and simple.  The eastern stock has declined by almost 75% since the 60s, and the “western stock”, has plunged by 83%.  And it’s undoubtedly because of its frantically sought after belly meat.  It doesn’t take a brain surgeon to figure out the reasons for the fish’s demise once you understand that a single tuna can bring more than $100,000 at auction in Tokyo.

The species is pretty much the flagship for bad management driven by thinly veiled greed and a complete lack of foresight.  Never was there better example of the “Tragedy of the Commons” that Hardin spoke of so many years ago.

Reel-Time moderator Capt. Shaun Ruge with a friend

Reel-Time moderator Capt. Shaun Ruge with a friend

Frankly, it really bums me out.   I love these fish.  If you’ve ever had a chance to target them, you know how awesome they are.  Really, they are everything any good red-blooded angler desires…  Incredibly fast, incredibly strong and they can get real, real big.  When it’s really on, they feed on the surface with such ferocity it looks like it’s raining Grand Pianos.   And when you hook one?  Better be ready to get that boat in gear and follow them as they will dump an entire 500-yards of braid in the blink of an eye.  Just talking about them gives me goose-bumps.

Just so happens that we’ve had an extraordinary inshore run this year.  And yes, I have been chasing them around for the last two weeks when the weather allows. (I’ve stuck five so far but only landed one).  I’ve always had reservations about pricking these fish, although admittedly, the adrenaline dump I get when I see them usually overruns such reservations.   Yet such bodies of localized fish often cause anglers to believe that the species must be just fine.  Of course, that’s BS.  Just because there may be some fleeting concentrations of bluefin in your neck of the woods, it does not mean the stock is abundant and healthy.  Such localized concentrations only serve to highlight the lack of the species elsewhere.   While obviously there are still fish around to be caught, the most knowledgeable scientists in the field believe that both spawning stocks stand on the brink of collapse.  The only “experts” who dissent are those employed by the fishing industry.

Just last year I suggested in a Flyfishing in Saltwaters article that perhaps a 5 year moratorium might be in order to insure the fish’s future survival.  My Reel-Time blog on that article can be found here:  I still feel this way even though they are perhaps the most extraordinary gamefish around.   I’d be glad to give it up for 5 years if I could take part in a partially restored fishery.

But let’s get back to the point.  Despite my recent obsession with such a localized body of fish, that has apparently come inshore to feed on abundant sandeel concentrations in my neck of the woods this fall, the cold hard reality is that just about all the science out there shows that bluefin are in real bad shape.

The International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT), the management body responsible for protecting the species has entirely failed with bluefin every step of the way.  ICCAT has had had every opportunity to take sound scientific advice and do the right thing over the years, but they haven’t.  In fact, for the past five years, ICCAT has set annual catch limits for the eastern stock almost 200 percent above the levels recommended by its own biologists.  An independent review panel commissioned by ICCAT actually called its management of bluefin tuna a “travesty” and an “international disgrace.”  And then there is the rampant and widely know underreporting and misreporting by fishing nations in the eastern Atlantic, combined with wide-scale “pirate fishing”.  Both have driven the actual harvest to about double the irresponsible, short-sighted and self-serving quotas set by a Commission which is clearly focused on short term profits of its member nation’s fishing fleets rather than the long-term health of bluefin stocks.

Despite much stricter quotas with the western stock and nations, including the US, that are actually serious about compliance, the best scientific evidence demonstrates that the western stock is in even worse shape than the eastern stock.   It should be that fact, rather than any question of “fault”, that guides conservation decisions.  But that’s not the case.  Commercial interests claim that fishermen in the Eastern Atlantic are responsible for the decline of the Western stocks.   Indeed recent tagging data has shown the eastern and western stocks intermingle, possibly as much as 30%.  However, to place all of the blame on harvest in the Mediterranean ignores the simple fact that every dead fish, wherever it is caught, contributes to the overfishing problem, and just about all of the scientific community recognizes that overfishing is what’s killing off the bluefin.  Instead of considering the possibility that adult bluefin are now so scarce that American fishers engaged in traditional bluefin fisheries can no longer fill their commercial quota, commercial lobbyists are now arguing that longliners should be able to retain a greater “bycatch” of western stock fish on their spawning grounds in Gulf of Mexico, when what is really needed are time and area closures to prevent longliners from continuing to direct effort on the fish when they aggregate for reproductive purposes.

When you look at the overall picture with bluefin, it’s pretty grim.  But there is some good news.   Well…  It’s not quite good news yet, but it does give me hope.  There’s been a current international movement for a CITES listing.  CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) is a treaty designed to regulate trade in certain animal and plant species that are now or potentially may be threatened with extinction. A listing would essentially ban international trade of the fish, thus removing the demand that has undoubtedly led to the bluefin’s decline.  (Note: It would not ban fishing for bluefin, just international trade…  See clairification note at the bottom). Thus far, there has never been a listing for a commercial fish species.  Yet, there has never been a commercially fished species that fit the criteria for a CITIES listing as perfectly as Bluefin.

The fifteenth regular meeting of the Conference of the Parties to CITES is scheduled to be held in Doha, in March.  The small Principality of Monaco has submitted a petition to list bluefin on Appendix 1 to CITES.  It has since gained some support from larger European countries such as the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Poland, Germany and Austria.   Even France, which may have a larger bluefin fishing fleet than anyone else has backed a CITIES listing (although it seems France may have already flipped).

The United States announced its support for a CITES listing also despite the strong opposition to such a listing by the US commercial tuna fishermen and a segment of the “recreational” fleet that has permits to sell its catch. However, such support may merely have been meant to push ICCAT into accepting a much lower science-based quota.  The U.S. made it quite clear that it would withdraw its support for a CITES listing if ICCAT did the right thing at its November meeting.

ICCAT’s commercial fishing nations did indeed react to the threat of such a trade ban.  In November they met and agreed to reduce the total catch in the eastern Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean Sea by almost 40% (from 22,000 tons this year to 13,500 tons for 2010) as well as reducing the fishing season for purse seiners by three months to one month and promised to close the fishery if the next scientific stock assessment shows a serious risk of collapse for the species (I highly doubt they’d actually do that, and many of those in the know speculate that the promise will be quickly forgotten once the CITES meeting is over).

Regardless of whether or not this is a last ditch attempt of the disgraced tuna commission to ward off a trade ban, these are steps in the right direction.  But I’m afraid it’s not enough.  As usual with ICCAT, it’s too little, too late.  The latest available science shows that to have only a 50% chance of stocks recovering by 2023 then an annual eastern Atlantic catch limit of 8,500 tons would need to be imposed.   ICCAT’s chief scientist, made it quite clear that achieving the recovery plan with any certainty would require such an 8,500 ton quota rather than the 15,000 tons that many at the meeting thought they could get away with.

Even if ICCAT had the balls to make a decision resulting in such drastic cuts, would it have mattered?  Probably not.  Trying to enforce an 8,500 metric ton quota on 20 fishing nations that have a history noncompliance would have been impossible.  Frankly, a complete ban on the Mediterranean fishery would have been justified.  But there still would have been a big pirate fishery, perhaps even larger than the one that exists already.  Fishing nations thus far have been completely unable to control the illegal bluefin take.

“As a member of ICCAT, the United States entered this meeting seeking the strongest possible agreement for the conservation of the eastern Atlantic and Mediterranean bluefin tuna,” said NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco. “The ICCAT agreement on eastern Atlantic and Mediterranean bluefin tuna is a marked improvement over the current rules, but it is insufficient to guarantee the long-term viability of either the fish or the fishery.”

Dr. Rebecca Lent of the NMFS and lead U.S. Commissioner added, “The United States sought a package of measures for eastern Atlantic and Mediterranean bluefin tuna that would halt overfishing and provide for rebuilding by 2023 with a high probability of success. The science indicates that a total quota level of 8,000 metric tons or lower would have achieved that. While I am pleased with the commitments for significantly lower quotas next year, I am disappointed that parties did not take immediate measures to significantly reduce the quota for the 2010 season.”

So what’s next?  As I mentioned, The 175 member countries of CITES will meet in March.   If the listing is to succeed, it must have US support.  Looking at the NMFS comments , its difficult to figure out exactly where the US stands.  On one hand, they talk about taking every step necessary to recover the bluefin, which sounds like it may be more aggressive re CITES.  On the other hand, they praise the progress made.  Undoubtedly, there are politics involved here as powerful Congressmen and Senators in New England states with large commercial fishing ports are pushing NOAA to reject the CITES option.  To me, it looks like the US is fence-straddling on the issue, and if it continues to be indecisive, that would probably be the kiss of death for a CITES listing, and perhaps the kiss of death for bluefin.  The Obama Administration needs to quit dillydallying and make a firm public commitment to a CITES listing, and the sooner the better.

The costs and benefits are clear. If we don’t get a CITES listing for bluefin, prices will continue to rise as the stock shrinks and the bluefin continues to decline, until they reach a point of no return.  But if a trade ban is imposed, the bluefin stocks can still be recovered, and people on both sides of the Atlantic could again benefit from a recovered and abundant fishery.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which takes the lead for the U.S. at CITES, is accepting public comment on a bluefin CITES listing through January 4, 2010.  Let them know how you feel by sending comments via email to, or snail-mail them to Division of Scientific Authority, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 4401 North Fairfax Drive, Room 110, Arlington, VA 22203.


Although the greatest opposition to a CITES listing obviously comes from the commercial fishing industry, there is also some opposition arising from parts of the recreational community.  Some of that opposition comes from holders of “Charter/Headboat” and from “General Category” permit holders, both of which claim to be part of the bluefin angling community, because they catch their fish on rod and reel, but which are considered to be commercial, and allowed to sell their fish.  However, some legitimate anglers also stand in opposition, largely due to false claims, circulated in various media, that a CITES listing would result in bluefin being listed as “Endangered” under the Endangered Species Act and thus result in a ban an recreational tuna fishing.    A CITIES listing merely prevents international trade.  CITES is an international convention, and the Endangered Species Act is a US statute.  They involve completely different regulatory actions and one has no direct bearing on the other.   Thus a CITES listing on it’s on would in no way effect fishing in the US.  It would merely prevent trade in the species.


After obtaining an undergraduate degree in Political Science from Loyola College in Maryland, Captain John McMurray served in the US Coast Guard for four years as a small-boat coxswain and marine-fisheries law enforcement officer. He was then recruited to become the first Executive Director of the Coastal Conservation Association New York. He is currently the Director of Grants Programs at the Norcross Wildlife Foundation in New York. He is the owner and primary operator of “One More Cast” Charters. John is a well known and well published outdoor writer, specializing in fisheries conservation issues. In 2006 John was awarded the Coastal Conservation Association New York Friend of Fisheries Conservation Award.

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Posted in Articles, Bluefin Tuna, Conservation
  1. avatar Bill Hubbard says:

    I could agree with you if ICCAT had not just made tremendous strides in reducing the quota for the eastern Atlantic/Mediterranean stocks. And it isn’t just ICCAT. The EU has agreed with ICCAT and will crack down on the illegals and they back reducing the eastern catch by the 60%. this year.

    We have all been pushing ICCAT to toughen their stance. Now they have done it – not only for the coming season but further reductions in the following years could actually closed the Med. to commercial fishing because the quota will finally be determined by the scientific community.

    Canada and the US have been pushing for these measures for years and now, we finally achieved a vote that backs science, not greed. I usually agree wholeheartedly with your conservation views, but not this one. Now that our ICCAT commissioners have finally got other nations to agree with our conservative views; give the new regs a chance to work.

    listing BFT at this point will most hurt the two countries who have been fishing well within and below their quotas. The US and Canada have been more than conservative of the Western Atlantic stocks. Now, yoiu want to shaft them. It’s wrong…….

  2. Thanks for the comments Bill. In my opinion ICCAT did not make “tremendous strides”… They did the minimal amount they thought necessary to avoid a CITES listing in March. Their vote for 13500 metric tons did not “back science”. The SCS recommended 8500 metric tons if bluefin were to have a reasonable chance of recovering. The EU as well as other fishing nations under ICCAT have historically demonstrated that they have no control over illegal fisheries that exist and thrive in the Med. Any crackdown will be short-lived and any results will be temporary as long as there is an international demand for the fish. I will eat my hat if ICCAT ever voluntarily closes the Med… And even if they did, such pirate fisheries would continue to exist, and most estimates of illegal harvest put it equal to or greater than the 22,000 metric ton quota legal fisheries were allowed to catch just last yerar. CITES will not cripple the US nearly as much as it will the Med fishery, particularly the farming/ranching operations. US fishermen will be able to serve a greater demand in the US domestic market, much of which is currently filled by the Med tuna farms. Granted they won’t be getting the high prices that have essentially pushed the western stock to around 15% of its historical levels, but frankly, I’m more concerned about whether or not my kids are going to be able to participate in a partially recovered fishery rather than whether or not some guys are able to maximize profit from a public resource that is already severally overfished. I fail to see how that’s “wrong” as you put it. As long as there is an extraordinary price on the bluefin’s head there will forever be extraordinary pressure on the species. As I said in the blog “If we don’t get a CITES listing for bluefin, prices will continue to rise as the stock shrinks and the bluefin continues to decline, until they reach a point of no return. “

  3. Bill, you are right that ICCAT did make progress this year, mostly because they were threatened with the prospect of being stripped their power. Ultimately I agree that an international body like ICCAT needs to manage pelagics, but in this case ICCAT is taking a big gamble with our fish. I am the founder of and have the task of explaining to everyday people about this situation. And I have to tell you, the arguments for why we are still killing these fish are tough to make. Overall, I am now of the opinion that our bluefin tuna do not deserve this continued onslaught just to be packed and sent to Japan to feed rich people. I can tell you young people that know about this issue are disgusted with that basic premise. There is nothing any one of us can say to millions of college students that justifies the killing rates. Then if you dig deeper into the recent ICCAT items, another point that is impossible to explain, is why we continue to kill these fish when they are spawning. Every day that a commercial boat can kill a spawning bluefin is the wrong policy. But the giant monster in the room is the illegal fishing part of this situation. In ~150 days the commercial fleets will be out again killing these fish. This opens the door wide open to the illegals as it always has been. The rules in place address the fish that have already been killed. So in short the illegals will have another shot at these fish in a few months. This is where the failure rate of 40%, that ICCAT pegs their own program, is of most concern. Now I realize the US bluefin fisherman have obeyed the rules and have led the way here. I know folks like Ralph Pratt and Rich Ruais have toiled on behalf of the bluefin and don’t want to see the fishery closed. I agree with them on most points however I am not willing to accept this high of a gamble. The Med needs to be shut down in terms of international trading, and most everyone in tuna politics knows this. The rub is that other nations like the US are not willing to go along with a ban for fear of disrupting their own fishery and future fisheries if the ban happens to be effective. While I sympathize with these feelings, it points to how broken the system really is, and why an overhaul is needed badly. If you step back from the fight over specific species, we all should be raising hell over the acidification problem. If the acid levels rise a touch more off Cape Cod, the huge crop of sand eels that made the bluefin fishery this year will be in jeopardy. Then what? We have an eco-system problem in the oceans, the bluefin is the tip of the spear for how reckless we can be, but many more problems are here and escalating.

    If by chance you don’t agree here, I suggest you take the historical decline of the bluefin population since 1970, and the recent ICCAT decisions down to your local university for a sanity check. If you love bluefin tuna like me, you will be embarrassed as I have at the reaction and questions asked.

  4. avatar joe jancewicz says:

    Cites or no Cites if member nations take “reservation” to a listing international trade will still go on. If Japan takes a reservation it will be business as usual with everyone except the U.S. and Canada. The only two countries who have abided by the rules will be left out in the cold. But then again what’s new.

  5. Excellent piece John. In my August 31 letter to the US F&WS I made it clear that the 1,000 – plus members of the Fishermen’s Conservation Association, support an Appendix 1 listing for bft. After reading your article, I think that reminding F&WS of FCA’s position might be a good idea.

    It is disappointing to see the misinformation spread by some well-known organizations that claim to represent the interests of recreational anglers. A CITES listing will not ban bft fishing – period. To claim otherwise is disingenuous at best; closer to the truth, it’s just plain old selfish greed. I would walk away – quickly – from any organization that claims a CITES listing will end fishing for bft.

  6. avatar Doug Amorello says:

    You guys are nuts to think that it is ok to kill thousands of small fish, yet a CITES listing is a good thing…Obviously John you show your ignorance when you think that NMFS will not use a CITES listing as a managemnt tool…they will most certainly take away your small fish fishery as well as the giant fishery…thanks for screwing the American fisherman…i guess you also think Obama is doing a good job!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  7. avatar Capt. Ron Stearns says:

    First I must say that was an excellent article. A CITES listing is certainly a step in the right direction and is obviously needed. I know I won’t be popular for this but frankly I don’t care. I’m an avid light tackle/fly guy and I have to say to the guys who pursue these fish with light tackle and fly might as well throw their catch in an ice box and take them home. Anyone who has fought a tuna large or small knows they literally smoke themselves from a long fight. For us to mess with them with light tackle and then complain about the commercial guys who sell them is retarded. Sure there needs to be drastic changes in the regulations and management of Bluefin (and other species) but we shouldn’t shirk our responsibility for the fish we kill in our pursuit of excitement or worse egotistical glory.

  8. Ron… Thanks for the comments… Have to say I agree with you here. Recreational discards have to be a significant source of mortality, particularly in the Cape. From a management perspective, I’m not sure how that can be addressed.

  9. avatar Bill Hubbard says:

    The Obama Administration announced yesterday that it will vote to “list” Bluefin Tuna at the CITES meeting in Qatar on March 15th.

  10. here’s the full release:

    Strickland Announces Continued United States Support
    for International Proposal to Protect Bluefin Tuna
    WASHINGTON, D.C. – The United States will continue its support for a proposal to ban all
    international commercial trade of Atlantic bluefin tuna at this month’s meeting of the
    Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wildlife Fauna and Flora (CITES)
    in Doha, Qatar, Assistant Secretary of the Interior for Fish and Wildlife and Parks Tom
    Strickland announced today.
    Strickland, who will head the U.S. delegation to the 15th Conference of Parties (CoP15) of the
    175-nation treaty, initially announced support for the proposal last October, but left open the
    possibility that the United States could modify its position if the International Commission for
    the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) adopted significantly strengthened management
    and compliance measures during its November 2009 meeting.
    “Under the leadership of NOAA, the United States entered the meeting seeking the strongest
    possible agreement for the conservation of eastern Atlantic and Mediterranean bluefin tuna. We
    recognize that the parties to ICCAT took some unprecedented steps,” said Strickland.
    “However, in light of the serious compliance problems that have plagued the eastern Atlantic and
    Mediterranean fishery and the fact that the 2010 quota level adopted by ICCAT is not as low as
    we believe is needed, the United States continues to have serious concerns about the long-term
    viability of either the fish or the fishery.”
    The Atlantic bluefin tuna is highly prized, especially for sashimi, and a single fish can be sold for
    tens of thousands of dollars. The Eastern Atlantic and Mediterranean stock is threatened by
    overharvesting, which includes illegal, unregulated, and unreported fishing.
    Current population information for the species shows it meets the biological criteria for listing in
    Appendix I. In the Atlantic Ocean, bluefin tuna are managed as two separate stocks, an Eastern
    Atlantic and Mediterranean, and a Western. The Eastern Atlantic and Mediterranean stock of the
    Atlantic bluefin tuna has declined steeply during the last 10 years. Based on estimated catches,
    scientists estimated the spawning stock biomass in 2007 to be 78,724 metric tons. This contrasts
    with the biomass peak of 1955, at 305,136 metric tons. The decline over the 50-year historical
    period ranging from 1955 to 2007 is estimated at 74.2 percent, the bulk of which (60.9 percent)
    took place during the last 10 years.
    The Western Atlantic spawning stock has declined by 82.4 percent from 49,482 metric tons in
    1970 to 8,693 metric tons in 2007. During the past decade, the Western stock has stabilized at a
    very low population level. Many experts correlate this stabilization to adoption of rigorous
    science-based catch quotas and other management measures together with effective monitoring
    and enforcement. Such measures ensured strict compliance with ICCAT’s ruled by the U.S. fleet.
    Strickland noted that the parties to ICCAT took positive steps at the November meeting. These
    steps included a commitment to set future catch levels in line with scientific advice, to shorten
    the fishing season, reduce fishing capacity, and close the fishery if the stocks continue to decline.
    However, in light of the serious compliance problems that have plagued the eastern Atlantic and
    Mediterranean fishery and the fact that the 2010 quota level adopted by ICCAT is not as low as
    needed, the United States will support the proposal to list Atlantic bluefin tuna in Appendix I at
    CoP15 and will work actively with Monaco and other CITES and ICCAT Parties in order to
    achieve positive results for bluefin tuna at CoP15 and at the 2010 ICCAT annual meeting.
    If the bluefin tuna is listed under Appendix I, commercial fishermen in the United States could
    continue to sell western Atlantic bluefin tuna caught in the U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ)
    domestically. Fishing in the EEZ is tightly regulated in the United States to ensure that it meets
    the ICCAT science-based quota. The United States is both a consumer and a net importer of
    Atlantic bluefin tuna. Strickland indicated that the United States will explore measures to assist
    fishermen if international trade is restricted.
    “We understand the frustration of our U.S. fishermen who have followed the scientific
    recommendations and regulatory provisions of ICCAT for many years while their counterparts in
    the eastern Atlantic and Mediterranean have often overfished and engaged in ineffective
    management,” Strickland said. “The U.S. government is committed to working with our many
    international partners to continue to rebuild Atlantic bluefin tuna and ensure sustained
    conservation and management of the species into the future.”
    A CITES-regulated species may be included in one of three appendices to the convention:
    • Appendix I includes species for which it is determined that any commercial trade is
    detrimental to the survival of the species. Therefore, no commercial trade is allowed in
    Appendix-I species. Non-commercial trade in such species is allowed if it does not
    jeopardize the species’ survival in the wild. Permits are required for the exportation and
    importation of Appendix-I species.
    • Appendix II includes species for which it has been determined that commercial trade may
    be detrimental to the survival of the species if that trade is not strictly controlled. Trade in
    these species is regulated through the use of export permits.
    • Appendix III includes species listed by a range country that requires the assistance of
    other parties to ensure that exports of their native species are legal. Permits are used to
    control and monitor trade in native species. Any CITES party may place a native species
    in Appendix III.
    Any listing of a species in either Appendix I or II requires approval by two-thirds of the CITES
    party countries that vote on the proposal.
    The Conference of the Parties will be held March 13-25, 2010, in Doha, Qatar.

  11. avatar joe jancewicz says:

    In the early 1980’s Drs. Brad Brown and Steve Turner of the NMFS Southeast Fisheries Science Center told the world that there were 10,000, thats 10,000 Bluefin Tuna left in the entire Atlantic Ocean. The latest best available science in 2009 says that there are now over 5,000,000 thats no typo, 5,000,000 Bluefin in the Atlantic. Where I went to school thats 500 times the number of Bluefin now than there were in the 1980’s. If this kind of recovery warrants a CITES listing so be it. I just need to know what American fishermen did wrong for the past 25 years to justify a CITES listing. Did we bring the stock back too quickly? Were we too conservative? I just don’t have the answers. Perhaps someone else here can shed some light on this subject.

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