Tuna in trouble
Nov 27th 2008
From The Economist print edition
Anger that the catch will still be too big
ACCORDING to conservationists it is a disaster for the bluefin tuna, but as far as the European Commission is concerned it is a landmark decision to try to conserve their stocks. These are the opposing views of the outcome of a meeting this week in Morocco to set the allowable annual catch of the species, the population of which has tumbled because of overfishing, mainly by European fleets.
The organisation responsible for looking after tuna in the north-east Atlantic and the Mediterranean Sea, the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT), agreed to reduce the total allowable catch of bluefin in these areas from 28,500 this year to 22,000 tonnes next and to 19,950 tonnes in 2010, to give a total cut over two years of 30%. But this was considerably short of what many scientists—including some experts appointed by ICCAT—say is necessary. They wanted the catch to be limited to 15,000 tonnes. Some countries, including Spain, had wanted the fishery suspended altogether.
Oceana, an environmental group, said that with ICCAT ignoring its own scientific advice the future of the bluefin is now threatened, not least because in the past fishermen have taken around twice the permitted catch. The World Wide Fund for Nature, which has also been campaigning for a substantial cut in the catch, is now seeking an international trading ban on bluefin. It is urging a wider consumer boycott, too. Some restaurants have already banned the fish.
The European Commission, however, says it is satisfied with the consensus that was reached between the members of the group because the cut in the catch will be reinforced by a reduction in the fishing season and other methods of conservation. Enforcement will also be improved. This, says Joe Borg, the European commissioner for maritime affairs and fisheries, will mean more policing of the sale of tuna and the closure of loopholes in the regulations.
None of that is likely to satisfy the conservationists. Computer modelling of the species’s population earlier this year, by the Technical University of Denmark, concluded that, even if fishing for bluefin were banned, stocks in the north-east Atlantic and Mediterranean were so badly damaged that they would probably collapse anyway. Conservationists may now take another approach and try to persuade CITES, the international convention that regulates trade in endangered species, to put bluefin on its list of those threatened with extinction.
The (Tuna) Tragedy of the CommonsBy Andrew C. Revkin
There was new evidence early this week that the world has not yet absorbed just how deeply humans have depleted our “exhausted oceans.” At the latest meeting of the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas, created under a treaty 42 years ago to manage shared fisheries in that ocean, European governments ignored a strong recommendation from the group’s own scientific advisers for deep cuts in some harvests of the Atlantic bluefin tuna. On its face, that would seem to be a strange development considering that the organization’s Web site says flatly: “Science underpins the management decisions made by I.C.C.A.T.”
But such moves seem unremarkable, for now, in a world seeking to manage limited, shared natural resources while also spurring economic growth — whether the resource is the global atmosphere or an extraordinary half-ton, ocean-roaming predator. The European stance — insisting on a harvest in the eastern Atlantic and Mediterranean 50 percent above the limit recommended by scientists — was sharply criticized by environmental campaigners, marine biologists and United States fisheries officials. Some biologists criticized the United States, as well, for playing down the role of American fishers, both recreational and commercial, in destroying the once-bountiful fishery.
But the biggest focus was on Europe. Biologists and American fisheries officials blamed European governments for failing to shrink the huge fleets of boats from France (771), Italy (619), Spain (441), England (331) and elsewhere that are acknowledged, even by Europe, to be too large for the fishery. Environmental campaigners have repeatedly reported on rampant, enormous illegal catches in European and international waters, as well. Given that tagging studies have shown that the half-ton tuna can roam the full span of the Atlantic in seeking breeding and feeding grounds, the European position is widely seen by fisheries specialists as sending the fabled species spiraling further toward outright collapse. At the center of the fight, spurred largely by the worldwide sushi trade, is one of nature’s most magnificent, and endangered, experiments — a transatlantic torpedo that can sprint at highway speed while warming its brain with energy from its muscles.
The European Commission said it was “pleased with the consensus” at the meeting.
I sought a reality check from Carl Safina, the noted marine biologist, founder of the Blue Ocean Institute, and prize-winning author of books on tuna, albatross and sea turtles.He noted that the situation for the bluefins that frequent the American side of the Atlantic was in many ways worse than for those on the European side. Here’s how he described the continuing devastation of one of the world’s great, if underappreciated, predators (bold-face highlighting by me):
We had a separate discussion about sharks, and one move by the commission that could help one species. But Dr. Safina pointed out how inconsequential that initiative is given the continuing devastation of shark populations in the Atlantic and worldwide.
This Western stock is in much worse shape than the east, even though all the finger-pointing has gone to the problems of eastern excess, which are indeed major. But the Western stock is going extinct while everyone complains about the east. The problem is overfishing in both places.
The fact is that for years the quota in the West has also been much too high, due to commercial and recreational fishing industry lobbying. And we continue fishing in the spawning area. (Earlier this month I lost a long-running lawsuit against N.O.A.A. to close the Gulf to gear capable of catching bluefins during the spawning season.) It’s all subject to limits but the limits are too high. If they weren’t too high, we would not have the problems. So we have a collapsed western stock and a rapidly declining eastern stock because of greed all around.
U.S. boats have been catching a small fraction of their quota (about 10 to 15 percent of what they’re allowed) in recent years. That percent of the quota will increase as the quota comes down, making things look better. But the quota remains higher than the catch, so the quota is not a limit. It’s like limiting your pasta intake by reducing your limit from 10 pounds of spaghetti per meal to five pounds per meal. Nobody is eating five pounds, so it’s not a limit.
I.C.C.A.T. has always been broken, and the tradition of ignoring the science and insisting on higher quotas was set 25 years ago by Western fishing interests. That tradition remains alive on BOTH sides of the ocean, and the indignant rhetoric by the Western fishing interests masks their own hypocrisy. No country has ever done the right thing toward maintaining these fish, though the U.S. comes closer. But still, the quota will be reduced to a level higher than the catch, so it’s all still meaningless….
The fishing on this side of the ocean is in tatters. The big runs of autumn, the “tuna fever,” the great herds of fish thundering across the blue prairies as they rounded Montauk, that’s all gone. This was by far the worst year ever. But then, that’s true every year. What was different this year was that in addition to bluefin, yellowfins and albacore were nearly absent, too.
What’s really needed is a moratorium for bluefin, and I first said that in 1991. That’s the bluefin situation. I must say that based on their whole history I would have been astounded if I.C.C.A.T. had set an eastern quota that complied with the science. I’m ashamed of what they do, but no longer surprised.