Politics trump science

Last summer, when Monaco proposed an international trade ban on Atlantic bluefin tuna, it seemed an almost desperate attempt to accomplish what the species’ regional fishery management organization (RFMO) had been unable or unwilling to do, which is enact tough measures to ensure the overfished species’ longevity. An Appendix I listing for bluefin tuna by the Convention on the International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES) was the only tool left in the box. But it will not be used.

It also seemed in recent weeks that a trade ban had sufficient emotional support worldwide to pass, but its defeat proves that political forces are indefatigable, even in the face of scientific evidence.

On several occasions in recent years, the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) opted for higher bluefin quotas than what its scientific advisory board had recommended. And then the fishermen in the eastern Atlantic and Mediterranean Sea exceeded those quotas by 10 percent or more. Bluefin tuna stocks in the eastern Atlantic and Mediterranean are reportedly only one-fifth of their historical high, a level that demands action.

Two years ago, an independent panel commissioned by ICCAT deemed the RFMO’s bluefin tuna management an “international disgrace.” Large catches of juvenile tuna and an expanded fishing fleet had depleted the resource, the panel reported, and yet quotas were always higher than what was suggested by its scientific advisors.

U.S. fisheries officials and environmental groups had pushed ICCAT to accept smaller quotas, sometimes half what EU fishing nations wanted. American and Canadian fishermen, who target a smaller stock of bluefin tuna in the northwest Atlantic, have abided by much smaller quotas, less than one-tenth of what ICCAT sets for the eastern Atlantic and Mediterranean.

ICCAT had succumbed to political pressure in Europe to allow a higher level of fishing to continue. And now, since the trade ban was soundly rejected by a 68-20 vote, with 30 abstentions, by CITES members on Thursday, the onus is back on ICCAT, just as Japan wanted. Japan, which buys about 80 percent of all bluefin tuna catches in the eastern Atlantic and Mediterranean, had vowed to ignore the ban if it were passed and convinced China and South Korea to follow its lead.

“It wasn’t a very good day for conservation,” United Nations spokesman Juan Carlos Vasquez told the New York Times. “It shows the governments are not ready to adopt trade bans as a way to protect species.”

Maybe the trade ban wasn’t the best solution. Maybe CITES isn’t a proper fishery-management tool, as U.S. Sen. Olympia Snow (R-Maine) declared in defending U.S. fishermen, who also count on Japanese buyers to set the market. A trade ban would have certainly hurt fishermen who have adhered to quotas.

ICCAT can only be as strong as the governments that participate in it. Those powerful forces should protect their economic interests, as that’s what they’re elected to do. But they also must respect the natural resources that made them possible — and realize that the fight isn’t over yet.

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