Adieu, Atlantic Bluefin Tuna? By: Alex David Rogers

DRAINING THE OCEAN: Japanese fisherman with a haul of Atlantic blue fin tuna, which is facing extinction. (AFP/Getty Images)

DRAINING THE OCEAN: Japanese fisherman with a haul of Atlantic blue fin tuna, which is facing extinction. (AFP/Getty Images)

Published by The Epoch Times, Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Global governance has failed to protect biodiversity

Mix tasty fish from the wild with growing global demand and industrial fishing by greedy fleets, and you have a recipe for disaster. That is what is facing the Atlantic bluefin tuna, a single one of which was auctioned in Tokyo’s Tsukiji market earlier this year for more than $181,000.

At the recently held meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), in Doha, Qatar, a valiant attempt was made to prevent the collapse of this stock. But given the intransigence of major consumers like Japan to curb their appetite and the inability of rich nations to agree to manage better the global commons like the ocean, the future for the magnificent Atlantic bluefin tuna may be doomed.

Alarmed by the rapid decline of Atlantic bluefin tuna stock, the Principality of Monaco proposed at the Doha meeting to ban all international trade in the species from the North Atlantic. They were backed by several European states, the United States, and others, but opposed by Japan, the most lucrative market for bluefin tuna where it is eaten in high-end restaurants.

How ironic that this is the International Year of Biodiversity, when the rate of loss of species globally was supposed to be reversed and that Japan is hosting the Tenth Conference of Parties of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD).

The decision on the Atlantic bluefin tuna followed findings by the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT), the organization charged with managing the spawning stock biomass of bluefin tuna, that populations in the Eastern Atlantic and Mediterranean have declined from more than 305,000 metric tons (mt) in 1958 to less than 79,000 mt in 2007, an absolute decline of more than 74 percent, most of which occurred in the last 10 years.

Over recent decades, other valuable fish stocks have been lost too. Perhaps the most infamous was the collapse of North West Atlantic cod, which had supported a fishing industry since medieval times. In this region, cod was a major predator and its loss led to a shift in the marine ecosystem where plankton-eating fish and crustaceans such as lobsters and shrimp became more common.

Japan Defies Ban

Japan has stated that it will ignore a ban in trade in bluefin tuna by CITES. This would significantly weaken the convention, with far-reaching implications for the conservation of endangered species globally. How realistic such a threat is given that most of the fish are caught by non-Japanese vessels is hard to see.

What lies behind the proposal to list bluefin tuna on the endangered species list is a staggering failure of fisheries management and flagrant disregard for the laws and agreements surrounding the sustainable use of the ocean’s resources.

To judge by the way the contracting parties to ICCAT have consistently voted themselves quotas above scientific recommendations, one would suspect that higher earnings, rather than sustainability, were the main concern. In 2008, faced with evidence of the annihilation of bluefin tuna stocks in the Mediterranean and Eastern Atlantic, ICCAT set a quota of 22,000 mt for 2009 and 19,950 mt (reduced to 13,500 mt in 2009) for 2010 despite scientific recommendations for catches between 8,500 mt and 15,000mt. However, even the agreed catch levels have been disregarded by the fishing fleets of many of the contracting parties of ICCAT.

Such rampant overfishing has been encouraged by a failure to limit access to bluefin tuna fisheries with a result of massive over-capacity in European and other fishing fleets in the Mediterranean and Eastern Atlantic.

The growth in fishing is, of course, driven by growing demand for variety with the affluent, health conscious population the world over embracing fish and Japanese sushi, in which Atlantic bluefin tuna is a prized item.

Following the Second World War distant-water fishing fleets, including that of Japan rapidly expanded across the globe and fished for large predatory species such as tuna, marlin, and sharks. Now industrial corporations are involved in the transport and trade of tuna from all around the world. The Mitsubishi Corporation is responsible for 40-45 percent of the trade in Mediterranean tuna and holds significant stakes in the international companies that both fish, ranch, transport, and sell tuna from the Mediterranean and elsewhere.

For the Atlantic bluefin tuna there is no place left to hide. Spawning and feeding aggregations of this magnificent species are vulnerable throughout their distributional range. Unless action is taken immediately it is likely that the species will largely disappear from the Mediterranean and North Atlantic. ICCAT has promised to “get tough” on compliance and has announced measures to reduce fleet capacity but it is too little, too late.

Sadly, overfishing is driving other marine species into catastrophic decline and some, including several shark species, are also subject to CITES proposals to be discussed next week. The oceans were once incredibly rich in marine life, yet poor management may be costing fisheries $50 billion per year in terms of lost revenue. Those are the economic losses. But the losses in terms of ecosystem, biodiversity, and food security at a time when the human population on Earth is increasing dramatically are incalculable.

Dr. Alex David Rogers is Reader and Scientific Director of the International Programme on the State of the Ocean. With permission from YaleGlobal Online. Copyright © 2010, Yale Center for the Study of Globalization, Yale University.

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