Adieu, Atlantic Blue Fin Tuna?

The Atlantic blue fin tuna risks extinction thanks to overfishing and poor global governance, according ocean expert Alex David Rogers. To add insult to injury, recent proposals to ban all international trade in the fish are being rejected by Japan, the largest consumer. Japan’s decision could significantly undermine the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) and deal a blow to conservation efforts globally. Still, Japanese fisheries do not catch many Atlantic blue fin tuna, so upholding the proposed ban will depend on other countries. The larger issue, then, is commitment to preventing over-fishing by CITES members. The track record has been poor with trade exceeding levels recommended to prevent catastrophic decline. The fate of the Atlantic blue fin tuna, then, represents not only the erosion of biodiversity, but also the erosion of global governance. – YaleGlobal

Adieu, Atlantic Blue Fin Tuna?

Global governance has failed to protect biodiversity
Alex David Rogers
Wednesday, March 17, 2010

LONDON: 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 blue fin 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 blue fin tuna may be doomed.

Alarmed by the rapid decline of Atlantic blue fin 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 USA, and others, but opposed by Japan, the most lucrative market for blue fin 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 blue fin tuna followed findings by the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT), the organization charged with managing the spawning stock biomass of blue fin 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. The figures for the western Atlantic are worse, with a decline from 49,000 mt in 1970 to less than 9,000 mt in 2007, more than 82 percent. Some studies suggest that these dramatic decreases in spawning stock biomass may be underestimated. Such catastrophic declines in stock size, for a species that is now recognized as having low productivity, mean that Atlantic blue fin tuna stocks are likely to collapse in the next few years and may become “critically endangered” under international criteria used to estimate extinction risk.

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 were 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. These species are lower on the food chain and are now fished, a phenomenon known as fishing down the food web (shifting fishing effort from predators to their prey). As a result of the impacts of fishing on the ecology of the northwestern Atlantic, the cod have not returned.

Japan has stated that it will ignore a ban in trade in blue fin 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 blue fin 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 blue fin 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. In addition, there was ample evidence of underreporting of the catch and laundering of fish by undeclared transhipment to freezer vessels (reefers). The European Commissioner, Jo Borg, openly acknowledged in 2008 that French vessels had not reported their catches, while Italian vessels had exceeded their quota, in some cases by more than double. Spotter planes were also being used to locate shoals of tuna, a practice that was prohibited by ICCAT, and states were failing to report on the movements of their vessels. In 2007, tuna imports, reported to ICCAT by Japan, amounted to more than 32,000 mt when the quota for the eastern Atlantic and Mediterranean was less than 30,000 mt. Taken together, consumption and trade of tuna within European Mediterranean countries and the catch by the Japanese fleet, ICCAT scientists estimated that the total catch for 2007 may have amounted to 61,000 mt.

Such rampant overfishing has been encouraged by a failure to limit access to blue fin 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 blue fin 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. Mitsubishi is now supporting new catch certification schemes and other conservation measures for Atlantic blue fin tuna. However, there has been speculation that tuna are being frozen in anticipation of future price rises and that industry has, until recently, exerted a negative influence through its governments on negotiations at ICCAT regarding Atlantic blue fin tuna.

For the Atlantic blue fin 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 (

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