Atlantic Bluefin Tuna Quota Cut, Conservationists Urge Trade Ban

RECIFE, Brazil, November 17, 2009 (ENS) – Fishing pressure on bluefin tuna in the Eastern Atlantic and the Mediterranean Sea will be reduced this coming year, but conservation groups are concerned that that the agreed reduction in fishing capacity will not be enough to save the giant tuna species. They are urging a ban on international trade in bluefin tuna.

Concluding its annual meeting on Sunday, the fisheries regulator responsible for Atlantic tunas adopted several new management plans governing the Eastern bluefin tuna harvest.

The International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tuna, ICCAT, reduced the total allowable catch for 2010 to 13,500 metric tonnes down from 22,000 tonnes in 2009.

A bluefin tuna jumps in the Mediterranean Sea. (Photo by F. Bassemayousse courtesy WWF)

This measure also commits to a science-based catch level for 2011 to 2013 with a 60 percent probability of rebuilding the stock to healthy levels by 2023.

The reduced catch quota will be accompanied by cuts in the size of the fishing fleet and length of season. The fishing season for purse seiners will be reduced from two months to only one month a year, the month between May 15 and June 15. This shorter season can no longer be extended in case of bad weather conditions.

As an additional precaution, it was that agreed that, if in the course of 2010, ICCAT scientists detect a serious risk of stock collapse, the fishery for Eastern Atlantic and Mediterranean bluefin might be suspended completely.

Forty-eight countries from around the world are contracting parties to ICCAT.

The European Commission said it is particularly satisfied with the consensus reached on this recovery plan aimed at Eastern bluefin tuna, which it says aligns fishing capacity and fishing opportunities with the latest scientific opinions.

European Fisheries Commissioner Joe Borg said, “This unprecedented set of concrete and ambitious steps will mark decisive progress in managing and conserving this migrating stock in the Mediterranean and the Atlantic.”

“Our goal is to ensure the return to a healthy bluefin tuna stock and a viable and sustainable fishery for our fleet,” said Borg. “Admittedly, ICCAT had a very tough task this year, but it has certainly risen to challenge.”

Canadian Fisheries Minister Gail Shea said, “ICCAT has finally shown a commitment to protect the Eastern Atlantic and Mediterranean bluefin tuna stock from overfishing and illegal fishing. The Government of Canada pressed for strong measures at this year’s annual meeting and is optimistic at members’ recognition that decisive action in favor of sustainable management of Atlantic bluefin tuna is needed.”

Mediterranean bluefin tuna (Photo courtesy Greenpeace)

The United States entered the negotiations seeking a halt to bluefin overfishing and U.S. officials were disappointed in the outcome. Dr. Jane Lubchenco, under secretary of commerce for oceans and atmosphere and NOAA administrator called the ICCAT agreement, “a marked improvement over the current rules,” but she said “it is insufficient to guarantee the long-term viability of either the fish or the fishery.”

Dr. Rebecca Lent, head of the U.S. delegation at ICCAT said, “Negotiations were extremely challenging this year at ICCAT. The United States sought a package of measures for eastern Atlantic and Mediterranean bluefin tuna that would halt overfishing and provide for rebuilding by 2023 with a high probability of success. The science indicates that a total quota level of 8,000 metric tonnes or lower would have achieved that.”

“While we are disappointed that the total allowable catch is not lower,” said Lubchenco, “we strongly support the commitment to set future catch levels in line with scientific advice, shorten the fishing season, reduce capacity, and close the fishery if the stocks continue to decline.”

But the Spanish Fisheries Confederation, CEPESCA, criticized the ICCAT decision to slash bluefin tuna quotas by 40 percent next year. The confederation represents 46 shipowner associations, 1,550 companies and 1,897 coastal and offshore fishing vessels.

During the Recife meeting, almost all bluefin harvesting countries were formally identified by ICCAT for breaking its rules. One example is that of EU tuna fattening farms accepting fish without proper documentation.

In Brazil, ICCAT adopted new mechanisms to better evaluate the Parties’ control efforts.

A new reporting format for inspections at sea is intended to improve the efficiency of the inspections; and a new point-based sanction system was introduced for those governments that fail to respect their ICCAT obligations.

Additional meetings of the Compliance Committee and a meeting dedicated to control in early 2010 will follow up on the various technical aspects of enforcement and compliance.

Raw bluefin tuna is considered a delicacy. (Photo by Ulterior Epicure)

But conservation groups are still concerned about the survival of the giant tuna, prized for the lucrative sushi trade.

Before the ICCAT meeting in Brazil five groups – Blue Ocean Institute, Greenpeace, The Pew Environment Group, Oceana and WWF – called upon ICCAT to adopt a zero quota for all stocks of the North Atlantic bluefin fishery until their populations have fully recovered.

After the meeting, WWF said the 13,500 tonne quota for 2010 is still far too high to enable recovery. The group cited a study presented to ICCAT in Brazil that showed even a strictly enforced 8,000 tonne quota would have only a 50 percent chance of achieving a recovery in eastern Atlantic bluefin tuna by 2023.

Dr. Sergi Tudela, head of fisheries at WWF Mediterranean, called the ICCAT outcome “entirely unscientific and entirely unacceptable.”

“This reduction of allowable catch is not based on any particular scientific advice to recover the stock with high probability,” he said. “It is just an arbitrary political measure and only for one year. Now more than ever WWF sees a global trade ban as the only hope for Atlantic bluefin.”

“The trends for bluefin tuna are very clear and we need to act on the forward view rather than the rear mirror view to avoid collapse,” he said.

The poaching of bluefin tuna in the Mediterranean is a major threat to the species, warn WWF and Greenpeace. Based on a study authored this year by independent consultant ATRT, the groups expressed concern over “the extremely high percentage of fishing targeting bluefin juveniles in the Mediterranean.”

The market for those smaller fish is the open sea fattening farms, where bluefin are held in net cages and fed before being sold. The conservationists say, “Between 8.4 percent and 21.09 per cent of the bluefin tuna fattened in the Mediterranean and sold fresh on the Japanese market were smaller than the legal catch size at the time of capture.”

“All the data indicates the imminent risk of collapse” of the species in the Mediterranean, said Celia Ojeda, head of Greenpeace Oceans, in a statement last week. “At this point, the closing of the fishery and the protection of its breeding zones are the only solutions, until the fishery shows evident signs of recovery.”

The conservationists are now pinning their hopes on the upcoming meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, CITES, in March in Doha, Qatar.

The CITES meeting will consider a proposal that bluefin be listed for the highest level of trade restrictions. The proposal was presented by the Principality of Monaco and is backed by the United States.

The ICCAT meeting also adopted a proposal to protect thresher sharks, although proposals to protect porbeagle and on shortfin mako sharks failed to acheive consensus.

The measure prohibits retention and sale of bigeye threshers, which Oceana calls “one of the most vulnerable and depleted shark species in the Atlantic.”

It also directs countries to ensure that their fishing fleets are not targeting common or pelagic thresher sharks and prohibits retention of these species in recreational fisheries. The one exception is Mexico, which can land 110 bigeye threshers each year.

Sharks are caught by many ICCAT fleets, both as targeted and accidental catch, and are killed for their valuable fins used to make sharkfin soup. Oceana is urging ICCAT to regulate sharks in its fisheries by requiring all sharks to be landed with their fins still naturally attached, prohibiting retention of endangered and particularly vulnerable or depleted species, and putting catch limits on all other shark species.

“Sharks have had next to no management on an international level,” said Elizabeth Griffin, marine scientist at Oceana. “ICCAT should protect sharks before they become the next bluefin tuna story.”

“ICCAT chose to put financial and political considerations before the health of our ocean’s top predators,” said Max Bello, campaign director for Oceana South America. “ICCAT’s failure to protect threatened shark species is completely unacceptable.”

A seabird protection proposal from the European Union also failed to achieve consensus in Brazil. Commissioner Borg says the EU will continue to urge ICCAT to register progress in the protection of seabirds at next year’s meeting.

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2009. All rights reserved.

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