State of the Bluefin

State of the Bluefin

The good news about bluefin tuna is that it might not be too late to save them from extinction

  • By: Ted Williams
  • Photography by: John McMurray
Bluefin Tuna

What are we to make of the international effort to manage bluefin tuna? A better question might be: Is there an international effort to manage bluefin tuna? From what we saw in 2010 and over the past 45 years, the answer to the second question has to be “No.”

Tunas and other highly migratory species, such as sharks, large mackerels and billfish, are supposedly managed by the 48-nation International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT), ratified in Rio de Janeiro in 1966. Since then ICCAT has presided over the near commercial extinction of bluefins and has scarcely done better with sharks and billfish. ICCAT scientists analyze the condition of stocks and recommend quotas to member nations. But even when the scientists get things right they get ignored. One thing they have gotten very wrong is their bizarre theory that there are two equally plausible scenarios for the bluefin crisis: one, they are grossly overfished and will recover if the pressure is lifted; and two, conditions in the Atlantic have changed and even with draconian quota cuts we’ve got about all the fish we’re going to have.

“Just ask yourself who’s pushing that second scenario,” declares Dr. Carl Safina, president of the Blue Ocean Institute and a former ICCAT delegate and scientific advisor. “And ask yourself for what other fish is there evidence that when you cut quotas they don’t respond. They all start recovering immediately—everything from striped bass to swordfish to fluke to scup. Everything. This is coming totally from commercials; they just made it up.”

Four years ago ICCAT appointed an independent review panel, consisting of some of the world’s most respected fisheries scientists, to assess its performance. Their findings, released in 2009, included the following: “ICCAT’s failure to meet its objectives is due in large part to the lack of compliance by many of its CPCs (Contracting Parties, Cooperating non-Contracting Parties, Entities and Fishing Entities). CPCs have consistently failed to provide timely and accurate data and to implement monitoring, control and surveillance arrangements on nationals and national companies. ICCAT CPCs’ performance in managing fisheries on bluefin tuna particularly in the eastern Atlantic and Mediterranean Sea is widely regarded as an international disgrace.”

Indeed it is. And in the western Atlantic as well. “It makes the U.S. Congress look like an action-oriented, can-do outfit,” remarks Dr. Michael Hirshfield, chief scientist for the international marine-advocacy group Oceana and a U.S. delegate to ICCAT. “It’s designed to snap to the status quo. It’s clearly an international treaty organization. The challenge is that you’ve got a whole bunch of nations basically negotiating for their individual best deal. The staff is playing this incredible juggling act, trying to be faithful to ICCAT’s charter, but at end of the day it’s the decisions by the parties that drives everything.”

Safina, who spells out the ICCAT acronym as “International Conspiracy to Catch All the Tunas,” offers this: “It’s rigged to fail. What you really need is for all these nations to get together to do the right things, which none of them can do individually. But instead of going with the idea that this is a cooperative venture for sustainable management, most every country tries to bring back as much as it can for itself. So there’s no incentive for cooperation. There’s a tremendous amount of lobbying for selfish behavior. And the countries are not rewarded for giving anything up for the collective good. They are, however, rewarded internally if they keep the quotas high.”

Iccat divides atlantic bluefins into two stocks, eastern and western, and develops quotas for each—this based on the misconception that the two exist independently. But tagging studies conducted by Dr. Barbara Block, professor of marine sciences at Stanford, have established that the stocks mix. So our fish are being killed by Americans, Canadians, Mexicans, Asians, Africans and Europeans.

We think bluefin tuna are better on the line than between chopsticks.

ICCAT’s alleged “rebuilding program” for the hideously depleted eastern stock began only in 2006. But with western fish, even worse off though declining less rapidly, rebuilding supposedly started in 1998, by which time ICCAT (according to its own scientists) had allowed the stock to dwindle to six to 12 percent of the biomass needed for maximum sustained yield. Since then the western stock has dropped four percent. Such is ICCAT management in action.

“There is a very real danger of reducing the western Atlantic bluefin tuna’s breeding population below a critical mass—the minimum population sufficient to sustain itself—resulting in a stock failure that’s irreversible,” warns Ken Hinman, president of the National Coalition for Marine Conservation.

At its most recent meeting—in Paris last November—ICCAT opted for only token reductions, cutting the western quota three percent (from 1,800 to 1,750 tons) and the eastern quota four percent (from 13,500 to 12,900 tons). ICCAT scientists predict that this will give the eastern stock a 60-percent probability of recovering to what they assume is sustainability by 2022. Why would nations that profit from bluefin tuna want to take a 40-percent gamble that recovery won’t happen and then wait 12 years to see if it does? For that matter, why should they believe that ICCAT “rebuilding” might happen in 12 years in the east when, after 12 years in the west, it hasn’t even started and numbers have, in fact, declined?

“My biggest concern is that 2022 is a long way away,” Hinman says. “And anyone who knows stock-assessment projections knows they get increasingly uncertain the farther they go into the future.”

Yet the U.S. delegation saw the ICCAT meeting as something of a victory. ICCAT’s ambiguous and questionable science indicated that its goal of a 60-percent-probable recovery by 2022 might happen with even higher quotas. Members of the 27-nation European Union, which got together before the meeting in Brussels to hash out a unified position, proposed cutting the quota to 6,000 tons, but were overruled in the council of ministers led by Spain and France, mostly France—the worst quota violator on the continent. China was OK with a zero quota. Even Japan wanted a lower quota. Say what?

Japan steadfastly requested better enforcement and better documentation of how many fish were caught where and by what means. This helped motivate ICCAT to implement a “payback” policy for violators. France’s quota, for example, was substantially reduced to compensate for its gross violations in the Mediterranean, the only known bluefin breeding ground other than the Gulf of Mexico.

“You and I would say, ‘Well ICCAT is just enforcing its own rules; payback should go without saying,’” comments Oceana’s Hirshfield. “But it doesn’t go without saying. By ICCAT standards that’s ‘a good job.’ I’m modestly optimistic that if we keep up the public pressure, ICCAT will grudgingly, belatedly and slowly keep heading in the right direction. I’m not as worried about extinction as I was three or four years ago. However, commercial fishermen like nothing better than fishing a blip. They got one this year, and you could see them itching. Numbers were up just a hair. It could be random noise.”

In the western Atlantic, Canada (which kills only adult breeders because the smaller fish stay south) pushed for more dead fish. But in an unprecedented display of resolve by the United States, NOAA administrator Dr. Jane Lubchenco showed up at the Paris meeting and urged ICCAT members to try a radical new approach—science-based management. “ICCAT,” she declared, “has a chance to show that it can learn from the past, balance the range of issues, and make tough decisions. Today we have a choice to make: Will we choose sustainability or status quo?”

Soon enough ICCAT answered her question by yet again choosing the latter. But, had she not been there and had the U.S. delegation been less aggressive, there’s no question that the quota would have gone up, not slightly down. We got thrown a doggy treat.

Praising Dr. Lubchenco for goosing the majority into less selfishness than usual was Ellen Peel, president of The Billfish Foundation and representing anglers as one of the three U.S. commissioners to ICCAT.

“This was the first time we have heard a clear statement emphasizing the economic and cultural value of recreational fishing being delivered by the U.S. at ICCAT,” Peel told the press. And she told me this: “Other nations look at bluefin and all fish managed internationally solely as commodities. The U.S. is the only country that has recreational fishing and environmental interests on its delegation. We need all ministers of tourism and natural resources involved in management. We see in other nations that tourism ministers instantly get the argument that good conservation pays. When they see the angler dollars that follow fish, they say, ‘I got it; this is easy.’ At ICCAT we have only the commercial and government guys who are looking at how many tons of dead fish they can put on the dock. Even Asian nations where sportfishing gear is made don’t have anglers represented on their negotiating teams. Before we see minimal change, ICCAT, members need to recognize that fish are valuable in many ways—not just for consumption.”

If there’s a problem with marine life anywhere on the planet, there’s a better than even chance that Japan is behind it. And Japan will do anything to get its way. For example, a lengthy undercover sting investigation by the United Kingdom’s Sunday Times revealed that Japan buys votes from nations belonging to the International Whaling Commission by providing commissioners with cash and prostitutes.

Eighty percent of all commercially killed bluefin tuna wind up in Japan. The U.S., a net importer of bluefin tuna, sends all its good stuff to Japan and buys European junk (farmed fish) for its sushi bars. Wealthy Japanese stop at nothing to glut themselves with the last wild giant bluefins. For example, on January 5, 2011 a single fish sold at the Tokyo Metropolitan Central Wholesale Market for $396,000, or $527 a pound. So you are wondering why the Japanese delegates would have pushed for a lower bluefin quota at the 2010 ICCAT meeting.

The answer is that they were scared scatless. Monaco scared them. It did this March of last year in, of all places, Doha, Qatar. That’s where the 175-nation Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) held its 2010 meeting; and Monaco submitted a proposal to ban international trade in bluefin tuna by placing the species on CITES’ Appendix I (endangered status) list.

Keeping imperiled species like bluefin tuna on the planet is why CITES exists. Monaco’s proposal was a scorching indictment of ICCAT misfeasance and an entirely appropriate response to a biological crisis. Affirming that the species qualifies for Appendix I were: CITES scientists, NOAA scientists, European Union scientists, the International Union for Conservation of Nature, and every legitimate marine conservation organization with Atlantic purview, including the less-than-enlightened U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization. No one knew how the Obama administration would be on fisheries; in fact, there were a few alarming signals. But it aced its first real test by enthusiastically supporting the proposal. The European Union supported it as well (though it wanted to give ICCAT one more year to get it right before Appendix I would otherwise go into effect).

Japan was apoplectic. Having heard earlier talk of the proposal, it set about forcing and buying votes. It sent out flights of lobbyists to hiss into the ears of the fisheries ministers and political leaders of virtually every CITES nation, to call in all chits, to threaten and cajole, to stress how much they depended on Japan for goods, to wine and dine, to dispense misinformation and prime bluefin sushi. They enlisted China and the North African nations to work against Monaco’s proposal. And they vowed that if it passed, they’d “take a reservation”—a declaration that the rules applied to everyone but Japan. No fish of any worth has ever been “managed” by CITES, they proclaimed adding, if CITES starts “managing” bluefins, who knows what fishes they’ll “manage” next?

But CITES doesn’t have anything to do with “management,” only with trade. An Appendix I listing wouldn’t have shut down international trade because not all tuna-killing nations belong to CITES, and there would be violators; but it would have knocked the price way down, almost certainly recovering the species. That’s because member nations could not legally sell bluefins to Japan, which is willing to pay those exorbitant fees.

The prospect of CITES action frightened ICCAT as well, inducing it to make substantial, though inadequate, cuts in 2009 for the 2010 season. Not only did Japan promise to take a reservation if bluefins were placed on Appendix I, it made a deal to oppose any increase in quotas at the 2010 ICCAT meeting if Monaco’s proposal was voted down. On the first day of discussion at the Qatar meeting Libya, mouthing the script fed to it by Japan, called for a vote. And, because of Japan’s disinformation offensive, Monaco’s proposal was shouted down with virtually no debate.

Despite the inspired leadership of Dr. Lubchenco and the enlightened stance of the U.S. ICCAT delegation there is no shortage of greed and stupidity elsewhere in our nation. For example, Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), ranking member of the Senate Subcommittee on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries, and Coast Guard, scolded Lubchenco for her comments at the ICCAT meeting and demanded that NOAA “incentivize” alleged good behavior on the part of New England tuna killers by letting them kill more tuna. Co-signing one of her harangues were: Senators Susan Collins (R-ME), Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), and Scott Brown (R-MA); and Representatives Barney Frank (D-MA), Chellie Pingree (D-ME), Mike Michaud (D-ME), John Tierney (D-MA), Stephen Lynch (D-MA), and Bill Delahunt (D-MA).

One might have supposed that the recreational-fishing community would have gone all out to support a CITES listing. After all, it wouldn’t have affected angling except to dramatically improve it. You’d still be able to fish for bluefins, kill bluefins, even sell bluefins. You just couldn’t sell them to foreign nations. But, with the exception of some thoughtful anglers, most of them organized in such NGOs as the Coastal Conservation Association and The Billfish Foundation, the recreational fishing community fought the proposed CITES listing viciously. Why?

That community, it grieves me to report, tends to be politically naive and easily manipulated by its worst enemies. Its opposition may explain why the U.S. left all the lobbying to Japan. Leading the charge against a CITES listing and whipping anglers to a froth of fear and paranoia was the misnamed Recreational Fishing Alliance (RFA), which represents charter skippers who front as anglers, but make money selling tuna they or their clients catch. Typical of the fiction the RFA fired around was this from director Jim Donofrio: “CITES listing could have turned the school, large school, and small/medium fisheries into catch-and-release only fisheries and completely destroyed the recreational anglers’ opportunity to harvest western bluefin.”

The PEW Environment Group liked Monaco’s proposal; and anglers had it from sources like the RFA that PEW’s ultimate goal is to ban fishing. NOAA was led by Dr. Jane Lubchenco, who was also plotting to ban fishing. And how did anglers know this? From the television network ESPN. She was, ESPN reported as news, hatching a “federal strategy that could prohibit U.S. citizens from fishing some of the nation’s oceans, coastal areas, Great Lakes, and even inland waters.”

The piece went viral on hardcopy and the Internet. And anglers swallowed it hook, line, boat and motor. Typical of blogosphere hysteria were these warnings: “The only thing we can…and SHOULD do is to exhort our senators and congressman to oppose this action and STOP Obama from using his executive power to ram this through,” and “The FACT is this is REAL. Look it up,” and “Lubchenco has direct ties to PEW. She has done nothing but put restrictions that are going to end the economic viability of fishing.”

It got so bad that the White House actually issued a statement that the ESPN report was pure fiction. Eventually ESPN issued a retraction, explaining that the piece should have been labeled an “editorial,” as if untruths are acceptable in editorials.

“It’s unfortunate that CITES uses the term ‘endangered,’” says The Billfish Foundation’s Ellen Peel. “CITES is about trade and trade only; it has nothing to do with fishing.” But most anglers I’m hearing from seem unable to wrap their minds around this simple fact.

Typical of the fantasies and paranoia generated by Japanese and RFA disinformation were these comments about the proposed CITES listing on Internet fishing forums: From Reel-Time: “There is no way that a listing by a group that calls a fish ‘endangered’ is NOT going to lead to an elimination of the fishery,” and “For this government it is a no-brainer to ban fishing for anything that has the word ‘endangered’ anywhere near it.” From Saltwater Fishing: “You can bet the farm that the enviros won’t stop at a [CITES] listing. This is an effort to stop tuna fishing.” and “If it does get listed there is no way PEW and the rest of the crew will allow an ‘endangered species’ to be fished.” From Big Game Fishing Board: “I fear that CITES is the beginning to shut down bluefin tuna fishing for recreational fisherman.” From Surf Talk: “It would be no tuna fishing at all as early as next year,” and “Get ready; if they put bluefin on Cat I CITES our days fishing for them are numbered.”

When the CITES proposal failed, the Center for Biological Diversity filed a petition for listing under the U.S. Endangered Species Act (ESA). If NOAA declares bluefin tuna endangered, other nations will still be free to kill and sell them. But there will be no commercial or recreational fishing for Americans, not even catch-and-release. In fact, you may not even be able to fish for other pelagic species in areas frequented by bluefins.

But, again, not all anglers are politically naive and easily manipulated. Reacting to the ESA petition on Reel-Time with (almost) complete accuracy was a perceptive fellow calling himself “Perch” who wrote: “This calls to mind the [longlining] piece in Fly Rod & Reel a while back by Ted Williams [“Pelagic Plague”]. Despite his pomposity and tortured diction he occasionally makes some excellent and prophetic points. He had it exactly right when he reported that a CITES listing was the best possible way to PREVENT ESA action… I think everyone has a right to complain about the [ESA] petition by the Center for Biological Diversity EXCEPT those who railed against the proposed CITES listing… The chickens have come home to roost.”

I could not have said it better myself.

Ted Williams has written about conservation issues for this magazine for almost three decades.