Q&A: Bluefin tuna industry speaks out

By

Neil Ray, SeafoodSource contributing editor, reporting from Bangkok

Published on
December 21, 2009

It’s been turbulent year for Australia’s fishing industry, especially for the tuna fishing industry in South Australia’s Port Lincoln. Last month, the country’s southern bluefin tuna (SBT) quota was slashed 24 percent to protect the resource from overfishing.

In an interview with SeafoodSource, Brian Jeffriess, CEO of the Australian Southern Bluefin Tuna Industry Association (ASBTIA), talks about his disappointment with the quota cut. Despite the cut, Jeffriess sees this as a period of progression and remains optimistic about the industry’s future.

Ray: What percentage of Australia’s bluefin tuna industry does your organization represent?
Jeffriess: ASBTIA represents all the owners of SBT quota in Australia. One of the reasons is that over 90 percent of the national quota is owned in Port Lincoln — the center of the SBT ranching in Australia. ASBTIA represents the quota owners across the whole range of the SBT business, from catching SBT in the wild to ranching and to [promotion] in Japan.

ASBTIA was clearly aggravated with the Australian government after the quota was cut. Why?
Australia’s SBT industry remains bitterly disappointed at the outcome of the 2009 CCSBT [Commission for the Conservation of Southern Bluefin Tuna]. Traditionally, ASBTIA had been consulted in the development of the Australian negotiating strategy and during the CCSBT meeting. In 2009, for the first time ever, the industry was not consulted. In the end, governments can do what they want — the point is that it should be based on the best advice. In 2009, the Australian government made some serious negotiating mistakes. This need not have happened.

Since the CCSBT, there have been a number of meetings with the Australian government to try to establish how the disaster happened. The reality is that the Australian government was completely out-maneuvered by both the Japanese and New Zealand governments. There is no point in complaining about it any more. We all just have to move on and ensure the lost ground is regained.

You described Australia’s quota cut as unfair. What would ASBTIA have considered a fair cut?
The quotas of Japan, Australia and New Zealand were cut by 70 percent in 1989 and 1990. The stock should have recovered strongly. However, the scientists and governments did not see it recovering, and could not work out why.

Then in 2006, the Australian and New Zealand governments announced that an independent CCSBT report had found that Japan had over-caught its quota by a total of over 150,000 metric tons in the 1985-2005 period. As a result, Japan’s quota was reduced from 6,065 metric tons to 3,000 metric tons until a review in 2011.

Despite all this, in 2009 Australia’s catch quota was cut by 24 percent, Japan’s by 20 percent, and New Zealand actually had its quota increased. By any measuring stick, this was grossly unfair.

Do you agree generally that southern bluefin tuna has been overfished in the region?
SBT should not be confused with Atlantic bluefin tuna (ABT). They are different species with different fishing histories, and managed by different commissions. The only common thread is that both species have been hit hard by illegal fishing. In many ways, CCSBT should be easier to manage, with many less countries.

Clearly the long-term illegal over-catch of SBT damaged the stock. That was inevitable, in recruitment of young SBT into the fishery in 2001 and 2002. However, in the last five years, the Australian industry has seen the stock strengthen considerably. This is reflected in catch rates in most CCSBT-catching countries being among the highest for almost three decades.

These increases in catch rates should be no surprise. With the reduction in the illegal catch after 2006, the actual catch has gone from over 25,000 metric tons to under 12,000 metric tons, and now just over 9,000 metric tons, with the 20 percent quota for the CCSBT. Fishermen who have operated every year for over 20 years clearly see the stock recovering. More important, they have continued to buy quota because of their observations at sea.

Do your members fear long-term unemployment and hardship?
There will be [fewer] jobs as the [quota] cut flows through the 4,500 jobs directly or indirectly dependent on wild tuna ranching. However, the industry is looking every day at more innovation. It needs to be remembered that modern tuna ranching is only 10 years old, compared with thousands of years of livestock farming. In tuna ranching, we are only 25 percent along the learning curve, with major improvements yet to come.

Already in Port Lincoln, operators are adding more value and becoming more innovative again. This will only partly compensate for the 2009 quota loss. The industry does not see hatchery production as economically viable. The answer to the current challenges are to ensure the sustainability of the wild fishery.
  
ASBTIA members are very optimistic about the future of the industry.

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