Showdown on Bluefin Tuna

17 Oct

Article By JOHN COLLINS RUDOLF AND DAVID JOLLY
@ New York Times

A bluefin tuna is harvested from a tuna farm off the Calabrian coast in Italy

A bluefin tuna is harvested from a tuna farm off the Calabrian coast in Italy

In advance of an annual meeting of bluefin tuna fishing nations next month in Paris, scientists and environmental groups are sharply questioning the validity of scientific data being used to set catch levels for the fish, which remains highly coveted as sushi but is increasingly threatened by commercial overfishing.

A scientific panel convened in March by the international commission that regulates the Atlantic bluefin catch suggested that this year’s quota not exceed last year’s limit of 13,500 tons. Such a catch would give bluefin stocks a 60 percent chance of recovering by 2019, the panel said.

But many national fisheries continue to ignore their obligation to provide accurate data on how many bluefin they land each year, making accurate quotas virtually impossible to produce, outside observers assert.

“Some years, some countries don’t report,” Brad Smith, a marine ecologist with the Pew Environment Group, said in an interview. “Or they report too late. Or they underreport. When there’s so much non-compliance, nobody complains.”

According to Pew, more than 85 percent of countries failed to meet reporting deadlines or to accurately report data on their bluefin tuna activities in 2009. Some countries in the Mediterranean, where most bluefin is caught, may be underestimating the size of their catch by as much as two-thirds in some years, Mr. Smith said.

Meanwhile, the large illegal bluefin catch is also being widely overlooked from year to year, he added.

“We need to get illegal fishing under control, at the very least,” he said.

There is little dispute that bluefin stocks have declined sharply in recent years, with wide agreement that the population of these large ocean-crossing fish are down to no more than 15 percent of their historical levels. But there is growing concern that the bluefin is poised for an even more dramatic crash, one that could push the species over the brink into commercial extinction.

At a United Nations conference earlier this year, an attempt was made to list the bluefin tuna as a threatened species, which would prevent it from being traded internationally. Strong opposition from Japan and other bluefin fishing nations sank the measure.

Some important political players at the upcoming meeting of the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas, or Iccat, in Paris have vowed to take a tough stance on problems facing the bluefin, however.

In an interview last month, Jane Lubchenco, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration administrator, said the United States would press for scientifically sound management of the bluefin at the meeting.

“It’s time for all members to step up to their responsibilities,” Dr. Lubchenco said. “At the last Iccat meeting there was good progress, but not enough.”

She added, “If the agreements are insufficiently strong, we would consider a moratorium.”

Several European Union countries, including France, have also said that they are open to a moratorium to allow tuna stocks to recover.

“The bluefin is a special case — there’s a danger of the collapse of the stock,” Maria Damanaki, the European commissioner for maritime affairs and fisheries, said in a recent interview.

“What I can say for sure is that we’re going to follow the scientific advice” at Iccat, Ms. Damanaki said. “We’re not going to back down.”

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