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Destined for the dining tables of the world’s elite and wealthy: the high price paid by bluefin tuna

November 19, 2010
bluefin tuna_photographer Greenpeace

Bluefin tuna: photographer Greenpeace

Conservation organizations across the world are once again making the case that the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) meeting in France this week must suspend the fishery for Atlantic bluefin tuna until strong management and enforcement measures are in place and the species shows signs of recovery. Similar calls were ahead of the Commission for the Conservation of the Southern Bluefin Tuna (CCSBT) last year.

By almost anyone’s language, bluefin tuna are in trouble. Southern bluefin tuna is listed by the IUCN as being critically endangered and northern bluefin tuna as endangered in the East Atlantic and critically endangered in the West Atlantic.

Two years ago the ICCAT Chairman Fabio Hazin admitted to the media that:

“the stock of bluefin tuna, by far the most valued tuna species, has been so heavily overfished in recent times that its collapse has become a very serious and threatening possibility. …The Commission’s inability to halt the decline of the bluefin tuna stocks for the past years has seriously jeopardized its credibility, raising grave concerns about its actual competence to manage the tuna stocks under its mandate.”

In 2005, the CCSBT adopted a fisheries quota model specifically designed to avoid stock collapse, all-be-it as a compromise between ‘the risk-prone and risk-averse standpoints of the different stakeholders’ (as the scientists involved characterized the debate). However, the model was not implemented because shortly after its adoption it became evident that historical catches had been substantially under-reported, and presumably the maths used for the model was therefore irrelevant.

Despite the advice of their own scientists to cut the quota dramatically, ICCAT member states have disagreed sharply going into the meeting this week about whether next year’s quotas should remain at their 2010 levels of 13,500, be halved or suspended outright. France’s fisheries minister, Bruno Le Maire, has told AFP that France favors maintaining the 13,500 level, a position backed by fishing nations Spain and Italy.

And herein lies the rub. Bluefin tuna are considered a high value resource. Make no mistake, bluefin tuna are not fisheries feeding the world’s hungry. Nor are these the fish going into our cans tuna, proudly declaring themselves dolphin-safe. Bluefin tuna are among the world’s most expensive fish, destined for the dining tables of the world’s elite and wealthy.

Driven by wholesale prices that can rise to more than $100,000 per specimen, industrial-scale fishing in the north and south has heavily depleted bluefin populations  over the last 40 years.

Such monetary value spawns the very conditions that mean management interventions are  slow and ineffective. The fish are worth so much that the authorities simply lack the will to take the strong action needed. This means that on top of the legal fishing that needs to come under control, the illegal activities and serious under-reporting that have plagued both ICCAT and CCSBT simply flourish.

If evidence is needed, news of the past day is reporting that France, Spain and other Mediterranean nations have forced the European Union to retreat from an ambitious plan to seek cutbacks in bluefin quotas. Instead they will now ‘consider the interests of tuna fishermen’.  On the up-side, it seems the United States still intends to push to further reduce fishing quotas a senior official told the media yesterday.

During the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) meeting earlier this year, Atlantic bluefin tuna was proposed for inclusion in Appendix I (equaling a ban on all trade) on the basis of the status of the tuna populations and the role of international trade in driving the decline of the species. Successful listing on the appendices of CITES requires two-thirds of CITES Parties to agree. Not surprisingly, the proposal didn’t make it across the line.

However, perhaps because they were feeling contrite, after killing the ban at CITES Japan, the European Union, the United States, and others made a public commitment to take strong, meaningful action at this November 2010 ICCAT Special Meeting.

The ICCAT Special Meeting starts today, so we will now see.

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