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April 05, 2010

Bluefin Tuna Blues

Promising steps toward a management for world tunas?

Editor's Note: The CITES listing for bluefin tuna mentioned in this article was not adpoted. Find out more here.

Not long ago, I listened to several talk-show hosts discuss how amazingly active this past Thanksgiving 2009 through New Year's was from a news standpoint. Normally, it is a fairly slow time of the year. The same can be said for the world of fisheries management. A lot has been happening, and a lot more continues to happen.

Right around the time of Thanksgiving, the results from the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas were announced, and they contained some promising measures. At the same time, the push to list Atlantic bluefin tuna under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species continued down its path. Both efforts are concerned with the same species in management regimes that outwardly appear to be going in completely different directions. But, is that really the case?

About 30 years ago, ICCAT members decided, based on minimal scientific data, that bluefin tuna in the Atlantic had two distinct populations. At that time, these two stocks were thought not to intermingle, so it seemed easier to manage them as two separate units. More recent research conducted by Dr. Barbara Block indicates that at least the ICCAT got part of the equation correct. There are two major spawning areas, the Mediterranean and the Gulf of Mexico, and there is strong fidelity to those areas, meaning fish spawned in one area return there to spawn. However, there is intermingling of the populations for the purpose of feeding. Mostly, fish from the Eastern Atlantic come to the Western side.

For as long as I can remember, the annual meeting of the ICCAT has produced a quota for the Western Atlantic that has been fairly closely adhered to and a target quota for the Eastern component that has been all but ignored, with landings routinely going several times over the quota. With one side of the Atlantic sticking to the quotas and the other side conducting business as usual, one might think that the stock in the Western Atlantic would flourish and the Eastern stock would crash. Unfortunately, the reality is that both appear to be in a great deal of trouble. The recent sale of a 513-pound bluefin for $177,000 is indicative of the price on these fish's head which is the reason why the landing and selling of them has to be highly regulated.

The 2009 ICCAT annual meeting produced some unusual results. The European members have historically resisted the scientific advice to reduce the catch. Then they have overfished the inflated quotas. Due to intense international pressure, and some think the threat of a listing of Atlantic bluefin by the CITES, this year ICCAT members agreed to a greatly reduced Eastern quota of 13,500 tons in 2010, which was the recommendation of the Commission's scientific committee. They also agreed to establish new management measures at the 2010 meeting that include a 60 percent chance of rebuilding the stock to maximum sustainable yield by 2023, as recommended by the scientific committee. They are planning to establish close to real-time monitoring of landings to make sure quotas are not exceeded. They instituted a comprehensive documentation system to track the movement of bluefin product into the marketplace and will require 100 percent observer coverage for the purse seine fishery. All of these measures are very big steps in the right direction for managing the Eastern stock. Will they actually be adhered to, and more importanly, will they be enough? Only time will tell.
Many think that the threat of a CITES Appendix I listing, which essentially would impact international trade in Atlantic bluefin, is the reason that these changes in management have been made for the Eastern stock. What then happens if the listing actually is put in place? As is the case with many international treaties, the CITES has some loopholes, and there is concern that these may be used to get around the intent of the listing. Any member nation can officially object to the listing of a species and, through that objection, continue to trade in that species. History tells us that Japan has objected seven times to marine species listing. They will likely object again, as they are the single largest market for this fish. It is highly likely that those nations that comply with the allocated quotas, such as the United States, will not object and therefore will be restricted. If the demand is filled by objecting parties, and it likely will be, how will those catches be monitored and controlled?

On the other hand, if a CITES listing would truly restrict the international trade and help rebuild both stocks of this fish, it could be a positive step. Currently, Atlantic bluefin tuna are below 15 percent of what their unfished population would be. Getting them back to a rebuilt status would be a real boost to recreational fishing along the East Coast. A CITES Appendix I listing would have no impact on recreational fishing for bluefin tuna, but a fully restored stock could increase angling opportunities manyfold.

While I am not opposed to the idea of a CITES listing for bluefin, I do think that there have been some real improvements in the ICCAT's approach to managing this fish in the Eastern stock. If we put any faith in this international management body, let's see if they can finally do their job. If we later do not think the ICCAT can do it, then supporting a CITES listing, maybe at the Appendix I level, will be the fallback. Domestically, there have been some small steps to protect spawning bluefin tuna in the Gulf of Mexico, but I do not think the limits are anywhere near restrictive enough. Without stronger measures in place, neither the ICCAT nor the CITES will have a real impact on the Western Atlantic stocks.