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.
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: https://www.reel-time.com/articles/conservation/on-bluefin-calling-it-like-i-see-it. 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 email@example.com, 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.