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Fly Fishing in Saltwaters Oct/Nov 2009



A CITIES listing may be the species only hope


It’s certainly not news that Atlantic bluefin are in trouble.  The eastern stock has declined by almost 75% since the 60s, and the “western stock”, has plunged by 83%.  The International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT), which is responsible for bluefin has completely failed to manage the fishery because the majority of its delegates are far more concerned about protecting short-term financial interests than on rebuilding stocks.  An independent review panel commissioned by ICCAT to review its performance following concerns raised by the international community called the management of bluefin tuna by ICCAT a “travesty” and an “international disgrace.”  For the past five years, ICCAT has set annual catch limits for the eastern stock almost 400 percent above the levels recommended by its own biologists.  Intentional underreporting and misreporting by fishing nations in the eastern Atlantic, combined with “pirate fishing”, has driven the actual harvest far above even those excessive quotas.


While some fish can still be caught, the most knowledgeable scientists in the field believe that both spawning stocks stand on the brink of collapse, if collapse hasn’t already occurred.  The only “experts” who dissent are those employed by the fishing industry.


Given ICCAT’s failure to end overfishing, there is a growing national and international consensus that a trade ban may be the only realistic option for bringing bluefin back from the brink.  And that is exactly where we’re headed. 


CITIES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) is an international treaty designed to regulate international trade in certain animal and plant species that are now or potentially may be threatened with extinction.  Currently, 175 countries, including the United States, are parties to CITIES. The convention strictly controls, for example, trade in ivory, in order to protect elephants from poaching.   Thus far, there has never been a listing for a commercial fish species.  Yet, there has never been a commercially fished species that fit the criteria for a CITIES listing as perfectly as the Atlantic Bluefin.


There is an unquestionable link between the international trade in bluefin and the overexploitation of the species.  When a single tuna can bring more than $100,000 at auction in Tokyo’s Tsukiji Market, of course commercial fishermen and their lobbyists will push for annual limits that allow them to maximize profits at the bluefin’s expense.  To date, they have generally been successful.  Thus, the bluefin’s survival may depend on taking much of the profit out of the fishery. 


That can best be achieved by a CITES listing.  Such a listing under Appendix 1 would effectively ban all international trade in bluefin.  Although such listing would not, of itself, prevent the locally caught bluefin from being sold in domestic markets, such markets are generally far less lucrative than those that would be put off-limits by an Appendix I listing. 


The fifteenth regular meeting of the Conference of the Parties to CITES is tentatively scheduled to be held in Doha, Qatar, March 13–25, 2010.  In June, the small Principality of Monaco submitted a petition to list bluefin on Appendix 1 to CITES.  The petition has since gained support from larger European countries such as the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Poland, Germany and Austria.   Even France, which may have a larger bluefin fishing fleet than anyone else has backed a CITIES listing. 


The backing of major EU countries has given weight and momentum to Monaco’s petition.  The European Commission's position had not yet been finalized.   Most countries seem to favor a listing, but Italy, Spain and Malta are expected to oppose it.  Currently, the EU’s Environment Commissioner favors a CITIES listing, while its Fisheries Commissioner has made a public commitment to defend the status quo.  It’s worth of noting that The EU Fisheries Commissioner is from Malta, arguably the EU’s largest “tuna ranching” nation.  Such ranches, which catch juvenile bluefin and “grow them out” to saleable size, are hugely profitable, and may be the single largest driving force behind the current decline of bluefin in the Mediterranean.


Backing from the United States is considered critical to the success of an ICCAT listing, but there is no certainty that such backing will be forthcoming. The US decision has not yet been made, but is pending “additional information and consultations.”   Given the concerted effort being made by the commercial fishing community to sway the US against a CITES listing, there is real cause for concern. 


The commercial arguments against a listing elevate past “fault” in the fishery over the future needs of the tuna.  American fishermen argue that they have always abided by international quotas, and thus they shouldn’t be “punished”, but they never investigate the question of whether those quotas were set too high, and whether the bluefin should be “punished” for managers’ errors in judgment.  The best scientific evidence demonstrates that the western stock is in even worse shape than the eastern stock, and it should be that fact, rather than any question of “fault”, that guides conservation decisions 


American commercial interests also hide behind the claim that fishermen in the Eastern Atlantic, not those in the West, are responsible for the decline of the Western stocks.   Recent tagging data has shown the eastern and western stocks intermingle, and that possibly as much as 30% of the fish engage in trans-Atlantic excursions, and there is no question that some western stock fish are killed in European waters.  However, to place all of the blame for the decline of the western stock on harvest in the Mediterranean ignores the simple fact that every dead fish, wherever it is caught, contributes to the overfishing problem, and just about all of the scientific community recognizes that overfishing is what’s killing off the bluefin.  Instead of considering the possibility that adult bluefin are now so scarce that American fishers engaged in traditional bluefin fisheries can no longer fill their commercial quota, commercial lobbyists are now arguing that longliners should be able to retain a greater “bycatch” of western stock fish on their spawning grounds in Gulf of Mexico, when what is really needed are time and area closures to prevent longliners from continuing to direct effort on the fish when they aggregate for reproductive purposes. 


Although the greatest opposition to a CITES listing comes from the commercial fishing industry, there is also surprisingly strong opposition arising from some parts of the recreational community.  Some of that opposition comes from holders of “Charter/Headboat” and from “General Category” permit holders, both of which claim to be part of the bluefin angling community, because they catch their fish on rod and reel, but which are considered to be commercial, and allowed to sell their fish.  However, some legitimate anglers also stand in opposition, largely due to false claims, circulated in various media, that a CITES listing would result in bluefin being listed as “Endangered” under the Endangered Species Act and thus result in a ban an recreational tuna fishing.    A CITIES listing merely prevents international trade.  CITES is an international convention, and the Endangered Species Act is a US statute.  They involve completely different regulatory actions and one has no direct bearing on the other. 


On the other hand, there are some fisheries advocates who argue that such a listing will be good for US commercial fishermen.   The US is actually a net importer of bluefin that currently imports a lot of relatively inexpensive tuna from Mediterranean fish farms.   A CITES listing would prohibit such imports, and give US commercial bluefin fishermen exclusive access to the big US market. 


While CITES meets next spring, ICCAT will meet in November.  It is not impossible that ICCAT will follow scientific advice and lower the 2010 bluefin quota to sustainable levels, causing any CITIES listing to be deferred.  But judging by ICCAT’s history, there is little reason to believe that it will do so.  Even if they did, the level of compliance is so low that, so long as international trade persists, harvest limits are nearly meaningless. 


For bluefin to be listed under CITES, three-quarters of the 175 member nations must approve the action.  If they do, the ban on international trade would go into effect 90 days later, possibly as early as July.  Is there a realistic change that a listing will occur?  In 1992, Sweden proposed a CITIES listing for bluefin. The United States opposed the proposal on the grounds that ICCAT actions would provide sufficient protections. Sweden eventually withdrew its proposal. 


Obviously, ICCAT actions didn’t provide the protections the US thought they would, and the circumstances are a lot different today.  Since 1992, ICCAT has done nothing of substance to recover bluefin stocks, and there is growing international support for a listing.  But it will still be a bitter fight.   If the listing is to succeed, it must have US support. If that is to happen, NMFS must make a decision and have it embraced by the Obama administration.


The costs and benefits are clear. If nothing is done, prices will continue to rise as the stock shrinks and the bluefin continues to decline, until they reach a point of no return.  But if prompt action is taken, the bluefin stocks can still be recovered, and people on both sides of the Atlantic could again benefit from a recovered and abundant fishery.