Q&A: Rich Ruais, American Bluefin Tuna Association

Published on
July 21, 2009

Bluefin tuna has been the subject of much debate this year. The film "End of the Line," released in June, brought the species' plight to the public's attention, and Greenpeace has ramped up its campaign to prevent bluefin tuna overfishing. But, according to Rich Ruais, executive director of the American Bluefin Tuna Association and proprietor of TunaNews.org, the environmental camp doesn't always get its facts straight when it comes to bluefin tuna.

Loew: What should the public know about bluefin tuna and overfishing in general?

Ruais: The claim [made in "End of the Line"] that the world will run out of seafood by 2048 is preposterously stupid, according to mainstream scientists. But the widely covered story may leave a devastating perception that will linger on [in consumers' minds]. My TunaNews site aggregates news articles referencing tuna, and I see hundreds of stories repeating this fallacy. My biggest fear is that after this movie ends its run, it will be shown on channels like PBS and then eventually make its way into school curriculums where it will be taken as gospel. It may have tremendous influence on future public perceptions and future marine biologists. There are problem areas like Atlantic bluefin tuna and Southern Pacific bluefin tuna.

But overall, where international fisheries management bodies are in place, stocks are improving or already at or above the biomass level necessary to produce maximum sustainable yield. In these areas, the biomass is not shrinking by any stretch of the imagination. The ocean is an amazingly productive environment and will remain so.

Who's to blame for sensationalizing the plight of bluefin tuna and other tuna species?

I blame the environmental advocacy groups. They have a moral responsibility for erroneously persuading consumers to give up the nutritional value, longevity and brain development benefits of seafood - the health benefits of omega-3s and selenium. These campaigns will drive people away from seafood and to red meat. Their sensationalism of [the] fish crisis has human health implications that they bear responsibility for.

What can be done to prevent tuna overfishing?

Regarding overfishing of the Pacific bigeye, a 30 percent reduction is not the end of the world for a species with such fecundity. The population can recover if fishing pressure is reduced for a few years. In the Atlantic, the potential problem for yellowfin and bigeye is the targeting of juveniles in the Gulf of Guinea. A lot of that goes to canneries. What is lacking is political will and attention of managers to tackle the systemic problem of IUU (illegal, unreported and unregulated) fishing.

In terms of preventing tuna overfishing, where does the United States stand?

The U.S. has had conservation management of pelagic fish stocks since the 1960s. We have the most responsible longline fishing in the world. For example, we have mandatory use of circle hooks, so that turtles can be safely released, and we have special mandatory training and tools to safely release them and other bycatch of billfish with minimal injury to the fish.

The U.S. industry supported amendments to the Magnusson-Stevens Act by which Congress gave authorization to the Department of Commerce to shut off our market to those countries that [the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration] determines don't have comparable conservation measures and that engage in IUU fishing. We should now be using access to our market as leverage to make sure other countries follow the ecosystem friendly rules our cooperative research programs have developed.

Where does the European Union stand?

The EU just doesn't have the same conservation ethic. In ICCAT [International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas], the EU has lied about their catches. Right after the ICCAT meeting in 2000, where the EU declared an undersize catch of zero, I went to the wharf [in Marseilles] and bought an undersized bluefin tuna; 30 to 50 percent of their catch in the past has been in undersize fish, under 6.4 kilograms. They just don't care. They've fished out the tuna spawning grounds in the Balearic Islands [Spain], and now they're putting pressure on the Gulf of Sidra [Libya]. Their attitude toward fish is that they are more concerned about the economy. Conservation doesn't enter into it and they do not follow the scientific advice as we do here in the U.S.

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Contributing Editor reporting from Osaka, Japan

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