Posted by: carlsafina | Wednesday, November 28 07

More Bluefin Blues

The story goes like this: It’s one of the largest, fastest, most gorgeous fish in the sea. Unfortunately, its extraordinary warm-bloodedness makes its muscle delicious to the strange seafood-loving creatures that live on land. The value of bluefin tuna meat goes up due to global demand for sushi and sashimi. As the price goes up, fishing increases. Too many fish are caught and the population collapses. Over the past 50 years bluefin fisheries have collapsed off Brazil, in the North Sea, and recently off the eastern U.S. and Canada.

The Commission tasked with managing Atlantic bluefin fisheries is completely broken. The 43-nation International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas met this month in, appropriately enough, Turkey, to discuss the fate of bluefin tuna in the Atlantic. Usually referred to by its acronym ICCAT-pronounced eye-cat- it should be called instead ICCAN’T. Or, keep the acronym and change its name to International Conspiracy to Catch All Tuna.

If that’s mildly amusing the Commission itself is the real joke. It’s stocked with ponderous self-important, cynical men who move and think like escargot. Their only concern, like most people, is money and politics. But because they’re bureaucrats not businessmen, these people are so short-sighted and dim-witted that they fail at both.

The same can be said for the fishers themselves, who, when it comes to bluefin tuna are represented by ideologues incapable of understanding that collapse is bad for business. They lobby the Commissioners very hard, and on the other end Japan, the main market for bluefin, does everything possible to keep quotas high and the science be damned.

So the Commission itself is an odd cross between a fishermen’s pit-bull and Japanese lap-dog. Last year, U.S. fishermen caught only 10 percent of their quota. By any measure, they’re going out of business. Because they consistently refused to discuss cutting their quota for the sake of conservation and their own future, their greed is bankrupting them. What have they and the Commissioners learned from the collapses? Apparently, nothing at all. In fact, in their 40-year history, they have never once managed a fish population sustainably or allowed a recovery. All the fish species under their “authority” are at historic lows, with one exception: North Atlantic Swordfish. But it took a chef’s boycott and a successful lawsuit to arrest and turn around that fish’s plummet.

The largest remaining Atlantic bluefin population-which breeds in the Mediterranean-is now also endangered with collapse. The quota for fishing in the eastern half of the Atlantic and in the Med is more than double what the Commission’s own scientists recommend. Moreover, recent catches have exceeded the limit by more than 50%. Actual catches are about 230% higher than scientists recommend, meaning that for every one fish that can be sustainably caught, fishermen are killing more than three. The population has halved since the 1970’s, with most of the decline occurring in the last 5-6 years. It’s the familiar Bluefin story: Illegal fishing is rampant, too many fish are being caught, and the population is headed for collapse.

At the recent Commission meeting the United States and Canada proposed a 3-year moratorium on bluefin fishing for eastern Atlantic fishing countries-i.e. exempting themselves-to allow member nations time to control illegal fishing and incorporate scientific recommendations. The proposal was quickly rejected. Despite obvious overfishing and decline, Commission delegates actually raised the quota slightly.

Nothing meaningful-at least nothing good-is ever done for bluefin tuna by ICCAN’T. Nevermind that the Commission’s own scientists have found that reducing catches and rebuilding the population could lead to substantially higher quotas in as few as 10 years.

Archeological evidence shows that people have been fishing bluefin tuna in the Mediterranean for at least 9,000 years. A three year break is not too much to ask to ensure that bluefin are around for the next 9,000.



  1. […] author of Song for the Blue Ocean, Eye of the Albatross, and Voyage of the Turtle, blogs about the broken International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas, including some of the driving politics behind the ICCAT’s recent decision to raise quotas in […]

  2. As a budding marine conservation biologist, I am consistently flabbergasted by ridiculous situations we (the human race) have gotten ourselves into. As a student, conservationist, and ocean lover, I am looking for a ways to contribute, but I am lost in the vastness of the issues. How does an undergrad in Arizona help ICCAT lower Quotas? How can I help put a stop to whaling? How can I help clean up the Great Pacific Garbage Patch? How can I help ban trawling in the worlds shallow-water ecosystems or stop the overfishing of sharks?
    As a student, one of the most frustrating things I have experienced is having such a strong feeling of empowerment, yet at the same time being overwhelmed by the scope and depth of the issues. I realize that I cannot do everything, but picking one issue has proven immensely difficult. Where should I focus my energy?
    I recently attend a conference put on by Prescott College’s Kino Bay Center for Cultural and Ecological Studies, in Kino Bay, Sonora Mexico. The conference was titled: Linking Research, Education and Conservation in the Eastern Midriff Island Region of the Gulf of California. This three-day event was possibly one of the most inspirational experiences I have ever had. The scientists and educators who were present had devoted their lives to the region and it was amazing to listen to them sharing information and scheming to save the ecological gem known as the Gulf of California. I mention this experience because a reoccurring theme throughout the weekend was, if you follow your passion, anything is possible.
    I have hope. I need to have hope to continue each day. I believe that things will turn around and the tuna will live on, that eventually trawling will be banned and shallow water benthic habitats will recover and stabilize, that sea turtle and albatross, boobies and sharks will all make a recovery, one day. I believe that these things will only happen with the help of conservationists and friends and that is precisely why I am ready to devote my life to conservation. The conference in Kino Bay allowed me to talked to the experts in the area and to see their passion. Passion is contagious and I am infected. With hope, passion, and an education, I truly believe anything is possible.

    I’ve always observed that those who want to get into the field and make a contribution with their time and energy and talent succeed–eventually. Being in school is about being in school, but using it to meet people, attend conferences, and tool one’s mind are the first steps to a successful career. Life is walking along a very dark road with a flashlight. Each step illuminates just a little more of the road ahead, but you can get where you want to go like that.

  3. If my girlfriend insists on still eating sushi and tuna is her favorite sushi is there any way to eat a different type of tuna. We went out for sushi this past weekend and I had her get bigeye tuna instead of bluefin. But normally there is no choice as to what type of tuna you are ordering. Is it ok to order bigeye or yellowfin? If you order a sushi roll and it lists in the ingredients tuna, should one assume that this is bluefin?

    It’s probably not bluefin unless it is advertised as such. Otherwise, ‘tuna’ in sushi is likely yellowfin. Check for our Guide to Ocean Friendly Seafood. Or send a text message to 30644 with the word FISH and the type of seafood you’re interested in. For instance, FISH TUNA, or FISH SQUID.
    – Carl Safina

  4. […] Carl Safina of the Blue Ocean Institute gave what some consider a more appropriate name, the International Conspiracy to Catch All Tuna. There are now only about 34,000 tuna swimming in the entire western Atlantic, down 82 percent from […]

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