The Upcoming Verdict on Tuna

By Thomas Lowdermilk, staff editor As this year’s meeting of the International Committee for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) comes to a close, fishermen, conservationists, and sushi-lovers all await the verdict on the Atlantic bluefin tuna.  The ICCAT sets the global quota for total allowable catch for this majestic fish.  Given its perilous state, many think that this year’s decision could decide the fate of the species.

The bluefin can grow up to 1,500 pounds and is the most desirable of all tuna for sushi and sashimi, fetching over $100,000 per fish in some markets.  Japanese demand drives the industry by consuming 80% of the global bluefin catch.  Due to this heavy consumption, the Atlantic stocks have plummeted 85% since 1970.

In response to this shocking decline, the U.S. in March supported a proposal to ban all international trade of the species under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).  That effort failed due to Japan’s opposition.  Japan stated that a CITES listing would be unfair to countries unable to meet domestic demand and that the ICCAT should take the lead on tuna conservation.

Last year, ICCAT set the quota at13,500 tons based on scientific recommendations.  However, the real problem comes from an inability to enforce these quotas.  A report released at the ICCAT conference states that one-third of all Mediterranean bluefin are caught illegally.  In 2007, the quota was set at 29,500 tons, but ICCAT estimates that the actual catch was 61,000 tons.

Conservationists and the U.S. government promote a drastic reduction of bluefin fishing to allow their stocks to recover for the benefit of future generations.  However, American fishermen worry that a moratorium or even lower quotas would destroy more jobs and only allow further exploitation by pirate fishermen, especially in Europe.

Even with all these efforts at conservation, the prognosis for the Atlantic bluefin remains grim.  Scientists expect that if current trends continue, the bluefin will join the Atlantic cod as another species so rare that it cannot support large-scale commercial fishing.  Given the economics of the bluefin trade, it is likely that no policy will be able to save them.

For the future of the oceans, we must realize that our notion of them as vast and infinitely abundant is fatally flawed.  Only by reducing consumption can we solve the problem of overfishing.  Unfortunately for the Atlantic bluefin tuna, any efforts will likely be too little too late.

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