Tough Break for Tuna


James Wright, Senior Editor

Published on
November 30, 2008

Unsurprisingly, the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas failed last week to adequately protect dwindling bluefin tuna stocks in the eastern Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean Sea. The organization remains more concerned with the 46 nations it represents than with the fish it is charged with protecting.

Despite myriad scientific recommendations to halve the eastern Atlantic bluefin tuna quota to 15,000 metric tons or less, ICCAT caved in to pressure from Europe's tuna fishermen seeking riches from sushi buyers. It's been reported that the vast majority of bluefin harvested from these waters ends up in Japan, where top-quality sashimi-grade tuna goes up for bid.

Instead, ICCAT opted to shave the quota by a little more than 20 percent, to 22,000 metric tons in 2009, during its meeting in Marrakech, Morocco (another quota reduction to 19,900 metric tons was pledged for 2010). A threshold of 15,000 metric tons was supported not only by the environmental community, which called ICCAT's decision a disgrace, but also by the governments of the United States, Canada, Mexico, Norway, Iceland and Brazil.

Bluefin tuna is a highly migratory species, so stocks in the western Atlantic, while much smaller, are also at risk if heavy fishing is allowed to continue (the United States is not blameless in this saga, as it too allowed too many fish to be taken over the years). The tuna quota for the western Atlantic was cut from 2,100 to 1,800 metric tons.

Even if tougher quotas and control mechanisms were adopted, there are serious doubts about European Commission leaders' ability or willingness to enforce them. Fish that fetch a pretty penny like bluefin tuna have become prime targets for illegal, unregulated and unreported (IUU) fishing.

Understandably, a balance must be struck between protecting natural resources and preserving the industries that depend on them. But the alarm bells about bluefin tuna have been sounding off for years and ICCAT chooses to hit the snooze button every time. Without sustainable tuna stocks, there soon won't be much of an industry to preserve.

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