Q&A: Weighing in on bluefin tuna


Chris Dove, SeafoodSource.com contributing editor, reporting from Malaga, Spain

Published on
June 13, 2012

Perhaps no fishery is more hotly contested than the bluefin tuna fishery in the eastern Atlantic and Mediterranean. Spanish fishermen are reporting an “abundant” catch this season, while environmentalists are clearly troubled by the failure to reduce the fishery or halt it altogether. SeafoodSource tapped three organizations — the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) in Madrid, Oceana in Madrid and the European Commission in Brussels — to get their latest takes of the status of the stock.

Dove: Please explain if, and to what extent, bluefin tuna stocks are said to be recovering. 

ICCAT: The fishing season will not be over until 15 June, so we cannot draw any conclusions at this time.

EC: The latest scientific advice was released by ICCAT’s Scientific Committee (Standing Committee for Research and Statistics, or SCRS) in October 2011. That advice was in line with that of 2010, indicating that important uncertainties in the state of the stock remained, notably concerning total biomass, and recommending to keep the mortality low. This was achieved by setting the lowest total allowable catch (TAC) in Eastern bluefin tuna history. Scientific advice in 2011 also said it was too early to assess the impact of the modified 2010 multi-annual recovery plan.

Oceana: It is not our role to judge whether bluefin tuna stock is recovering or not – this role corresponds to the legitimate position undertaken for proper scientific advice to be used as a sound basis for management decisions. The last scientific assessment was carried out in 2010 by ICCAT’s SCRS, and the conclusions were clear: the stock is overexploited. Until the results of the upcoming stock assessment are made public, any opinion given on stock recovery is speculation.

What’s the latest data available to support stock recovery claims? 

ICCAT: In its analysis of the probabilities of bluefin tuna stock rebuilding at spawning stock biomass for TAC levels of 0-20,000 metric tons over the period 2010 to 2022, ICCAT states that in 2012, there is 0 percent probability of stock rebuilding at all tonnage levels. In its 2010 assessment, ICCAT stated that a TAC of less than 1,500 metric tons is required to stop overfishing by 2011-2012, but the stock would not be expected to rebuild by 2019 even with no fishing.

EC: To the best of our knowledge, no new official scientific data is available. A new stock assessment will take place in September 2012 and the SCRS will issue new scientific advice in October 2012.

Oceana: Only the 2010 bluefin tuna stock assessment can be considered a consistent basis for any claim. Recovery claims are often based on observations of abundance at sea for a highly migratory species that can change its migratory patterns depending on environmental conditions. Bear in mind that illegal fishing still occurs. Future recovery relies on strict compliance of the current TAC adopted — removals from illegal fishing don’t count against TAC. Any assertion on stock status prior to the conclusion of this year’s assessment could be misleading.

What outcomes are expected from ICCAT’s bluefin tuna stock assessment session in early September? 

ICCAT: The SCRS meeting in September will transmit findings to the species group for adoption in October. In November, final approval will be given by all countries acting together in the way recommended by the Commission, according to catch documentation.

EC: The commission hopes the stock shows signs of recovery, confirming that management decisions taken in recent years are paying off. We look forward to the outcome, which is a completely independent science-driven process. SCRS will use the outcome to deliver new scientific advice on the stock. On that advice, the commission will examine the best options to pursue full stock recovery, and will prepare the EU's position for the ICCAT annual meeting in November, where a decision will be taken.

Oceana: Our work is dependent on science. We are often mere observers to the scientific process and we become active to ensure that management adequately responds to scientific recommendations. We won’t seek any outcome from the September stock assessment, but from the special meeting of the ICCAT commission in November, where contracting parties will have to ensure that science becomes management and management translates into a real recovery of the stock.

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