The bluefin balancing act


James Wright, Senior Editor

Published on
March 10, 2010

The world awaits a resolution to the Atlantic bluefin tuna debate, the impact of which will not be isolated to the waters of the heavily fished Mediterranean Sea and eastern Atlantic Ocean. Because several European nations and the United States are now supporting a proposed international trade ban on the species, regions that harvest the species more responsibly will be harshly — and from their perspective, unfairly — penalized because of wrongdoings on another continent.

CITES (Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species) member nations on Saturday will begin nearly two weeks of important discussions in Doha, Qatar, during which a final decision should be reached on bluefin tuna. Critics of an international trade ban say a CITES Appendix 1 listing will be difficult, if not impossible, to reverse, even if populations start to rebound. Such a listing is for species considered to be at the highest risk of extinction.

That’s the main point of contention. Some environmental groups contend that fishing can no longer continue if we want to save the slow-growing species.

Opponents point to major progress in recent years by regional fishery management organizations (RFMOs) as reason to give quotas a chance to work. If endangered-species protections are in place, they say to expect increased pressure on the federal government to stop all fishing and not simply support a trade ban.

Both cases are compelling.

Despite the pledge of the U.S. government, some U.S. fishermen are denouncing a trade ban and efforts to officially list the coveted species as endangered. And Canadian Fisheries Minister Gail Shea told CBC News this week that Canada, which has not yet stated its full position, has “more to lose than most other countries because we export almost all of our tuna.”

Fishing practices may indeed be a cut above on this side of the Atlantic, but any real solution to rebuild tuna stocks would require effort and sacrifice from all nations. But that’s not going to happen. Japan, which reportedly buys up to four of every five bluefin tunas taken from Mediterranean and eastern Atlantic waters, has already stated it will not abide by any agreement — as a matter of principle — that would cut off bluefin tuna supplies to support its centuries-old sushi and sashimi traditions.

Without the participation of the world’s biggest bluefin tuna buyer, how effective can a voluntary pact be? My guess is not very, and I’m not alone.

“It could be exceptionally counterproductive and do great damage,” Rich Ruais, director of the East Coast Tuna Association, told me this week, voicing fears that a black market could develop. “A whole bunch of other countries could also take reservations and there will be a spike in the price and a sharp jump in bigeye landings, part of which will be false: It’ll be bluefin in the boxes, labeled as bigeye.”

Bluefin tuna stocks face dire straits, and proponents argue there’s simply no other recourse but to cut off exports. But there are valid reasons for concern over how enforceable such a measure would be. Whatever the decision is, it will need to be given every opportunity to succeed — against some heavy resistance.

On another note, on Sunday, the day after the CITES conference begins, the inaugural Tuna Forum at the International Boston Seafood Show will discuss bluefin tuna and other issues surrounding global tuna fisheries. I will moderate a panel discussion that includes Susan Jackson, president of the International Seafood Sustainability Foundation, a group formed about a year ago to address and effect change in tuna fisheries globally. Other guests include Christopher Lischewski, CEO of Bumble Bee Foods; Paul Hill, a board member of the American Albacore Fishing Association; and Bill Fox, managing director and VP-fisheries for the World Wildlife Fund.

It’s the first time that a Boston Seafood Show conference session will be devoted solely to tuna, and it comes at a crucial time, as you can see. If you’re attending the show and want to learn more about the sustainability of bluefin or any other tuna species, please be sure to join us on Sunday at 2 p.m. in Room 153BC at the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center.

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