I'm standing at the crossroads, believe I'm sinking down. - American bluesman Robert Johnson
ICCAT is at a crossroads." That's what United States Commissioner Rebecca Lent told fellow members of the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas in her opening statement at ICCAT's annual gathering in November. Dr. Lent was referring to the intersection of two opposing forces: catches of bluefin tuna in the eastern Atlantic and Mediterranean Sea that are the highest ever, and a population of bluefin that is the lowest on record. The commission's scientific advisors warn it's a collision course that could collapse the stock in a matter of years.
"But when all was said and done," says National Coalition for Marine Conservation president Ken Hinman, who served as a member of the U.S. ICCAT delegation in Marrakech, Morocco, "the commission chose to keep moving recklessly down the same old path. As a result, ICCAT will continue to drive down stocks of bluefin tuna, chasing the decline with little hope of catching it before it crashes."
The meeting began on Monday, November 17th with a "Report of the Independent Review." Under pressure from its critics, ICCAT at the 2007 meeting appointed an outside panel of experts to evaluate its performance as measured against its stated objectives. Not surprisingly, the commission didn't fare too well. With respect to conserving its marquee species, the bluefin tuna - in particular the collapsing eastern Atlantic stock - the panel observed that ICCAT is widely viewed by the public as well as by many of its own members as "an international disgrace" and "a travesty in fisheries management." The independent reviewers seemed to agree.
Review panel convenor Glenn Hurry, whose day-job is CEO of the Australian Fisheries Management Authority and who also serves as chair of the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission, presented the report's findings and didn't pull any punches. Noting that ICCAT does have the tools to monitor, enforce and manage its fisheries, "(it's) been seriously letdown by it members," he said, many of whom are unwilling to meet the most basic requirements of good stewardship, such as accurately reporting their catches and complying with regulations. "Stop trying to beat the system," he scolded the captive and visibly uncomfortable audience. "It's not a game. ICCAT is a legally binding obligation."
The report highlights the fundamental need for regional fishery management organizations to accept and follow the best available science - in ICCAT's case, the advice of its Standing Committee for Research and Statistics (SCRS) - something the commission has failed to do with regard to eastern bluefin. (The panel commends western countries for adhering to the science when setting catch limits, but more on that later.) Hurry et al went so far as to suggest suspending all fishing for bluefin in the eastern Atlantic and Mediterranean until the nations fishing there gain control of their fisheries, agree to abide by international agreements and fully report their catches.
Don't Bring Me Down
In the months leading up to the ICCAT meeting, there was much talk of such a moratorium, but that was never going to happen. Realistically, the target to aim for could be no more ambitious than the SCRS recommendation that the eastern Atlantic bluefin catch be no higher than 15,000 tons in 2009 and that the Mediterranean be closed to fishing during spawning season, May through July. Knowing that anything less could spell the bluefin's demise, the U.S. co-proposed (with Canada, Brazil and others) the adoption of both measures early in the week-long meeting. Alas, even asking the least was too much to ask.
ICCAT members from the eastern Atlantic - mainly the European Community and North Africa - signaled early on that they had no intention of bringing their total catch anywhere near the scientists' recommended level. They've built up enormous fishing capacity (1,750 authorized vessels), including a booming tuna ranching industry in the Mediterranean that's drastically increased demand for tuna to fatten for sale to the lucrative sushi and sashimi markets. In 2007, the SCRS estimated the eastern fleets caught 61,000 tons. That's more than double the total allowable catch (TAC) for that year (29,500 t) and more than double again the level scientists say is needed to end overfishing (8,500 - 15,000 t).
After a full week of tough negotiations, ICCAT reduced the eastern TAC beginning in 2009, but not by nearly enough. The commission accepted a 22,000 ton quota, which would be reduced further to 19,950 tons in 2010, when the status of the stock will be reviewed again. The Med spawning grounds were left open to purse seining in May and half of June, traditionally prime fishing months and peak spawning time. What eastern countries are claiming is a substantial cutback will do little to save the bluefin, according to the SCRS, and the stock will continue to decline from its already depleted condition (just 10 percent of an unfished population).
The agreed-to quota, in fact, will not go below 20,000 tons until 2011, because, adding insult to injury, ICCAT is allowing Libya, Morocco and Tunisia to add 674 tons of "underage" to their quotas in 2009 and 2010, which means fishermen will be landing at least 5,000 tons more than the stock can sustain for the next two years. The very idea of underages in a fishery where under-reporting is rampant and total catches probably exceeded the quota by more than 100 percent is absurd, if not criminal.
Halting overfishing is hard enough. ICCAT has to deal with two kinds: legal and illegal. Legal overfishing occurs when TACs are set too high. That kind of overfishing will continue under the new eastern bluefin agreement. But what of illegal overfishing, which occurs when TACs aren't honored? IUU fishing - that is, illegal, unregulated and/or unreported - has been at least as big a cause of the bluefin's demise as ICCAT's failure to set science-based catch limits.
At the first Tokyo tuna auction of 2009, a 283-pound bluefin sold for $103,616. With such astronomical prices being paid for the fatty flesh of bluefin, there is a huge incentive for lawlessness. Add to that the growing demand from tuna farms in the Med, which have a capacity to handle over 50,000 tons a year, and the temptation to ignore quotas and maximize profits is almost irresistible.
The 2008 ICCAT agreement contains over 20 pages of language meant to bring the illegal fishing under control, but it remains to be seen whether or not it will be enforced. After all, the 2006 agreement relied mostly on the implementation of new compliance measures, which looked good on paper but apparently had little or no effect on the water.
It Hurts Me Too
Although most of the focus and debate in Morocco was on the east because of the rapidly plummeting stock and continued overfishing, the western population is in dire straits, too. The difference is, the west took its plunge decades ago. The U.S. supported new, lower quotas based on the latest science, and the U.S., Canada and Japan agreed to reduce the western Atlantic quota from 2,100 tons to 1,900 tons in 2009 and 1,800 tons in 2010.
The problem is, science-based catch limits in the west, which have averaged around 2,000 tons a year since the early 1980s, have not contributed to rebuilding. In fact, even with under-harvests in recent years, the western spawning stock is about 10 percent smaller than it was in 1998, which puts it at only 18 percent of what it was before the first catch limits were put in place in the 1970s.
There is legitimate concern that overfishing in the east is hurting U.S. fisheries, as well as adding fishing mortality to the western stock when those fish venture to the other side of the Atlantic. Overfishing in the east began in earnest in the late 1990s, and there is probably a correlation between the skyrocketing fishing mortality on adult fish there and the sharp decline in the fishery for giant bluefin off New England that began a few years later.
But if the western fishery has relied on visiting eastern fish, the western stock - which is separate and distinct, originating only in the Gulf of Mexico - is impacted most by fishing in the west. What those who contend that eastern overfishing has held back western recovery forget that western bluefin declined and then stabilized at extremely low levels, despite abiding by ICCAT quotas, through the years 1982-1995; before fishing mortality in the east had even reached overfishing levels. What's happened since - no rebuilding - is just a continuation of what went before.
So these new limits in the west might not be enough, either. If the eastern bluefin will continue to decline because of ICCAT's inaction, albeit at a slower rate, it's just as likely the western stock will at best remain in its current depleted condition if more isn't done. Further domestic action on the part of the U.S., which has jurisdiction over the western stock's breeding ground in the Gulf of Mexico, is needed, now more than ever. The U.S. outlawed targeting bluefin in the Gulf of Mexico years ago, but hundreds of breeders are still being caught as longline bycatch every year. Conservationists have repeatedly called for a complete closure of the Gulf to longlining during spawning season, from April to June.
It's All Over Now
Where do we go from here? "I went to the 2008 meeting thinking it was the moment of truth," says NCMC's Hinman, "a decisive moment at which the future of bluefin tuna and ICCAT as a tuna management body were on the line. But I left Marrakech feeling like I'd witnessed a different moment of truth - "el momento de verdad," as used in the bull ring -the point at which the matador makes the kill. I'm convinced we have no choice now but to forsake ICCAT for the sake of the bluefin's survival. And that means CITES."
It's noteworthy that Japan strongly supported the 15,000 ton quota for the east, which would affect their fishermen and markets, too, based on their conviction that if ICCAT didn't go this low, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species would take over and end international trade. Before the ICCAT meeting, it was common knowledge that if the commission did not follow the science in 2008, the next step could be listing Atlantic bluefin tuna under Appendix 1 of CITES, which would close the global market that is driving bluefin to the brink of extinction. And that's where we are.
The chances of a CITES listing are good. Another listing effort failed in 1994, but much has changed: 1) then it was only the western stock that was depleted, but now the larger eastern stock is collapsing, too; 2) then only U.S.-based groups were up-in-arms, but now the major European NGOs - World Wildlife Fund and Greenpeace - are more outraged and more engaged in the plight of bluefin than anyone; and, 3) then it was the word of environmental and fishing critics against ICCAT's, but now there is an ICCAT-sanctioned independent performance review that calls its conservation of bluefin tuna an "international disgrace." In 2008, ICCAT had the opportunity to change that harsh assessment. But it failed - once again.