The Bluefin Dilemma

Declining stocks and threat of extinction justify moratorium

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Atlantic bluefin tuna are the new hip fish to target with a fly rod, and for good reason. They get big, are extremely strong and are one of the fastest fish in the sea. I speak from experience that there is nothing quite as intense as chasing schools of 100-pound fish and lobbing flies at them while they blast baitfish on the surface. That's why it pains me to say that it's time anglers consider a moratorium.

The decline of this apex predator due to commercial demand - and the high price it brings on the sushi market - is well documented. The size of the western breeding population, which spawns in the Gulf of Mexico, is estimated to be just 10 percent of what it was in the 1970s, and it is still declining.

After years of filling quota, the United States' commercial bluefin industry only managed to catch 14 percent of its allocation in 2007 and 10 percent in 2006. Until a few years ago, such quotas were overshot annually. But fishing efforts remain strong, and such harvest decline is almost certainly due to a lack of fish. Recent research indicates that bluefin caught off the eastern U.S. include many fish from the larger eastern breeding population. That leads many to believe that low U.S. catch numbers could mean the decline of the western stock is even worse than previously thought.

Scientists predict an imminent collapse of the western stock and severe problems with the eastern stock unless decisive action is taken immediately.

Short-term Interests vs. Long-term Viability
Bluefin tuna are managed by the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT). Unfortunately, ICCAT has never met its mandate to maintain fish populations at levels allowing "maximum sustainable catches." Instead, it consistently proposes quotas considerably larger than those recommended by scientists, primarily because of heavy industry lobbying and interference by politicians who claim to act on behalf of their constituents. In fact, they work against their constituent communities' long-term interests.

"So many people have interfered with the scientific process in order to keep catches high," writes Carl Safina, president of the Blue Ocean Institute. "The irony is that the western Atlantic blue-fin population is crashing, and those who sought high catches are now witnessing catches that are under 10 percent of the quota, with the resulting loss of economic activity."

The bluefin's problems are just one glaring example of how management fails if good science is subordinated to short-term economic concerns.

"The focus has been on the business side of this fishery for far too long, and greed has been the driving force in its management," says Charles Witek, vice chairman of the Coastal Conservation Association's National Government Relations Committee. "CCA has long known that focusing on anything other than the health of the resource is the first step to ensuring its demise. Bluefin are another tragic example of what happens when you put business and fishermen first."

Moratorium: The Obvious Solution
Safina writes that all of this points "toward the wisdom of temporarily ceasing all fishing of Atlantic bluefin tuna, revamping fisheries-management commissions such that scientific advice is independent and insulated from lobbying, and mandating managers to limit fisheries catches to levels recommended by those independent scientists."

CCA's board of directors is calling for a reduction of the Atlantic harvest of bluefin tuna to levels supported by science. They are urging ICCAT to require all member nations to adopt such quotas by emergency action. If ICCAT fails to do so (which is likely), CCA believes that the only alternative is a complete closure of the Atlantic bluefin fishery and an international curtailment of trade.

Even the suggestion of such a closure has caused waves of discontent not only with commercial fishers but among anglers. Even the fly-fishing community, particularly on Cape Cod, is uneasy about such a closure, as bluefin now account for a significant portion of the fly-fishing charter business.

Some argue that the recreational angling community is not responsible for these declines, since the largest source of mortality for the western-stock spawners seems to be emanating from the longline industry in the Gulf of Mexico.

However, U.S. recreational fishermen are killing too many juveniles. It's a surprising fact that recreational catches account for 70 percent of the total U.S. catch by weight. By number, anglers account for about 90 percent of the fishing mortality.

Bluefin that spawn in the Gulf of Mexico don't mature until about age 12 (as opposed to eastern-stock fish that mature at age 5), so the reality is that anglers are "robbing the cradle." Juveniles are now crucial to rebuilding the bluefin population. Anglers killed approximately 15,500 juvenile bluefin in the second half of 2007. If the average recreational catch is 47 inches and 66 pounds (legal size is between 27 to 73 inches), that's 11 recreationally caught juveniles for every adult caught in the commercial fishery. Natural mortality of juveniles is low, as a 66-pound fish has few predators. Thus, to say anglers are not currently part of the bluefin's woes is factually incorrect.

Undoubtedly, commercial interests decimated stocks in the first place. Yet, as Dr. Russell Nelson, CCA's Gulf Fisheries consultant, correctly notes, "as is so often the case, the American fisherman is not responsible for driving bluefin tuna to the brink of collapse, but they are going to have to be a part of the solution to salvage what is left."

Continued decline appears inevitable unless catches are reduced to near zero. A moratorium on possession of bluefin tuna throughout the western Atlantic is not unreasonable. And a closure of Gulf of Mexico spawning areas for all gear capable of catching bluefin as bycatch is also warranted.

In the eastern Atlantic and Mediterranean, harvest should be halted until quotas and management-area boundaries adequately address the mixing of western fish with eastern fish and until scientifically-supportable regulations are imposed and adequately enforced.

The western stock probably won't survive if fishing of any kind continues.

Says Safina: "Recreational groups must now join forces to spearhead the kind of last-chance recovery that worked for striped bass. If you don't want to give up bluefin forever, recognize that what's needed now is a five-year moratorium on bluefin landings."