Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Atlantic Bluefin Tuna: species' future once again debated by controversial ICCAT

Starting this Wednesday in Paris, the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tuna (ICCAT) will hold its annual meeting to review catch quotas for the coming year. The 48 member governments of ICCAT constitute one of the few international fishery management organizations that can address the issue of rapidly declining stocks of bluefin tuna, billfish, and even sharks. But to date it has a dismal track record in the eyes of many scientific and conservation organizations.

At last year's meeting, the ICCAT ignored the recommendations of even their own scientific advisers and set catch levels at 13,5000 tons - well above the recommendations ranging from
6,000 tons to an all out ban. It became clear that ICCAT's mission was not the conservation of an aquatic species but that of propping up a dwindling industry in the short term.

So, once again, they meet to discuss the future of Atlantic commercial fishing in a time of worldwide economic pressures, a huge demand for bluefin tuna in Japan with astronomical prices to match, and political pressures to keep supporting a commercial fishing industry with the status quo - rather than transition it to a more sustainable future.

Gloomy outlook, but there is some interesting political jockeying going on.

According to the New York Times,
"The European Union’s fisheries commissioner, Maria Damanaki, with backing from Sweden, Germany and Britain, has called for an Eastern Atlantic and Mediterranean quota of 'less than 6,000 tons.' The union’s 27 members are supposed to reach a consensus and vote as a bloc."

Ready to challenge that proposal may be France, Italy, and Spain. France has come under fire, in particular, for an apparent reversal in their support of an outright ban proposed just 3 months ago at a UN meeting on endangered species. "In addition to the apparent about-face by President Nicolas Sarkozy’s government, the hosts may find the situation delicate for another reason: the French Agriculture Ministry was singled out in the [International Consortium of Investigative Journalists] report as having allegedly connived for many years to help French fishermen understate their catch," reported the New York Times. ‘‘'France is becoming the Darth Vader of the bluefin fishery,' RĂ©mi Parmentier, an adviser to the Pew Environment Group, said in a recent interview. 'France appears to be doing its best to sink proposals to reduce the catch.'"

Following the Gulf oil spill and concerns of potential impacts on Gulf of Mexico bluefin tuna breeding grounds, the position of the United States is a mixed bag. Jane Lubchenco, head of NOAA, said that Washington would support the scientific recommendations - which lean towards radically reduced catch levels. But northeast politicians, who represent major industrial Atlantic fishing fleets, are riding the wave of unemployment concerns and resisting efforts to have the bluefin tuna listed as an endangered species under U.S. law. Again, short-term gain that serves only as a precursor to a total industry collapse.

The interesting wild card in all of this has been indications from Japan that they might consider stricter fishery management. At the recent Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES) meeting, Japan stymied all efforts to protect tuna under CITES rules, declaring ICCAT to be the more appropriate forum. Now the pressure is on Japan to put their money where their mouth is. Being consumers of more than three quarters of the catch of Atlantic bluefin tuna, Japan could endorse significantly lower catch levels - or even a moratorium, as some Japanese officials have said they would be willing to support.

Or they can watch their market demand vaporize before their eyes in just a few short years with the loss of one of the ocean's great predator species. The battle of short-term versus long-term goals continues.

Read article in New York Times.

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