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Is the Bluefin Tuna an Endangered Species?

The United Nations will consider a ban on international trade of the prized fish due to plummeting numbers in the Atlantic and Mediterranean
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UNITED NATIONS -- A move to ban international trade in Atlantic bluefin tuna will go before the U.N. Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) for discussion and a possible vote, officials announced today.

The CITES office in Geneva confirmed that Monaco has submitted a formal bid to add bluefin tuna to the Annex I list of threatened species and that the proposal will be part of the formal agenda at the next general conference in Doha, Qatar, in March 2010. An Annex I listing grants species the highest level of protection, allowing for the continuation of a domestic market but banning all imports or exports of animals and their parts on the list. Today is the deadline for nations to submit their proposals.

Bluefin tuna are the source of the highest grade of sushi and sashimi, known to aficionados as maguro and toro. The fish is also prized in Mediterranean cuisine. Japan is by far the world's largest consumer, with fleets from Spain, Italy and France largely supplying the market there.

If adopted, the proposal would be the first time a major commercial fishery was targeted by CITES for restriction and would arguably be one of the most visible and far-reaching interventions by the convention ever. CITES is most famous for its protections of African elephants and Asian tigers, and proposed protections for marine animals have only recently come up.

It would also be a blow to the Atlantic bluefin's current managers, the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT). ICCAT members routinely ignore the advice of their own scientific committee and set catch quotas at double recommended levels. National fleets then regularly exceed even these quotas.

"ICCAT has consistently set catch quotas for the East Atlantic and Mediterranean stock above levels recommended by its scientists and the failure of its management measures is demonstrated by the continuously decreasing population," Monaco government officials say in their application.

An Annex I listing would likely put an end to much of the "tuna ranching" operations in the Mediterranean, where trawlers catch live bluefin schools and concentrate them in aquatic feedlots, fattening them up for a few months before sending them to market. Most ranch operators sell their catch to foreign customers.

It could also annihilate the market for bluefin in Japan. In 2007, Japan said it imported 32,356 metric tons of bluefin, while that nation's own vessels operating in the East Atlantic and Mediterranean brought in 2,078 metric tons that year. Prices for the fish have skyrocketed as individual bluefin have become fewer and smaller -- a single healthy-sized adult today can easily fetch more than $100,000 in Tokyo's largest fish market.

Scientists and conservationists have long warned that bluefin stocks in the eastern Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean Sea are facing imminent collapse after years of mismanagement by ICCAT. Stocks in the Gulf of Mexico and West Atlantic have already declined so significantly that U.S. and Canadian fleets routinely fail to even meet their annual ICCAT catch quota, while catch limits are routinely ignored and wildly exceeded by European and Japanese vessels.

Studies cited in the Monaco proposal report that Atlantic bluefin stocks have fallen by about 75 percent from 1957 to 2007, with 60 percent of that loss occurring in just the past 10 years as overfishing has accelerated. Scientists warn that continuing to fish the bluefin at current levels will push the population to 94 percent below the size it was before commercial exploitation began, effectively collapsing the fishery and putting some populations at risk of extinction.

"Continued fishing at current fishing mortalities is expected to drive the spawning stock biomass in the East to very low levels; i.e. to about 18 percent of the 1970 level and 6 percent of the unfished level," Monaco officials say in their formal proposal. "This combination of high fishing mortality, low spawning stock biomass and massive fishing overcapacity results in a high risk of fisheries and stock collapse."

Reactions

Conservation groups are expected to support the measure. Mark Stevens, senior program officer at the World Wildlife Fund, said his agency has not seen the formal proposal yet, but that WWF is in favor of a bluefin trade ban.

"Atlantic bluefin tuna clearly meet the criteria for an Appendix I listing, and WWF would enthusiastically support Monaco's proposal," Stevens said.

But industry groups will likely oppose the move. Reacting to a proposal that the United States should push for a bluefin trade ban, this past September the National Fisheries Institute sent a letter to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service voicing firm opposition to the idea. NFI says fisheries management belongs to the regional fishery management organizations like ICCAT and that a proposed CITES listing should be put to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization first.

"Commercially-exploited aquatic species are fundamentally different from the other species that CITES regulates," NFI President John Connelly says in the letter. "Unlike these other species, fish and seafood stocks are not generally threatened with biological extinction. While they can and do become overfished, the resulting loss of return on investment for fishermen prevents them from driving commercial fish stocks toward biological extinction."

At press time, the CITES Secretariat said that no other nation had stepped up to co-sponsor Monaco's bid, but the office has received applications to add several shark species to the list of trade-restricted animals. Nations have until midnight tonight to submit proposals.

Reprinted from Greenwire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC. www.eenews.net, 202-628-6500

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