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18th Apr 13Managed by Chatham House
Financed by DEFRA
Managed to death: If nothing is done soon, the bluefin tuna will disappear from the Mediterranean
If ever there were a graphic illustration of the tragedy of the commons, it is the plummeting of the worlds stocks of bluefin tuna. Because they live in the high seas, these fish belong to everyone, and are thus no ones responsibility. The result is that the bluefin has been doomed to decades of poor management.
Matters, though, appear to be reaching a crisis. In a study to be published soon in Conservation Letters, a group of scientists led by Brian MacKenzie, of the Technical University of Denmark, describe how they ran a computer model of the speciess population dynamics. Their conclusion is that even if fishing for bluefin were banned, the population in the north-east Atlantic and Mediterranean will probably collapse. The current management plan, to reduce quotas gradually over the next 15 years, will cause it to fall so far that bluefins in the area will qualify as critically endangered, the highest category of risk in the lexicon of conservation.
The organisation charged with changing that state of affairs is the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT), based in Madrid. However a measure of its success is suggested by its nickname, the International Conspiracy to Catch All Tunas. Indeed, things are so bad that a recent review by a group of outside experts appointed by ICCAT itself concluded that the management of the bluefin was widely regarded as an international disgrace.
Joseph Powers, a fisheries scientist at Louisiana State University who has been involved with ICCAT for a long time, says that, for the most part, the organisations scientists agree with Dr MacKenzie. The evidence, he says, is clear. The quotas handed out by ICCAT have been around 30,000 tonnes a year. The science suggests they should have been 15,000 tonnes. The management plan calls for them to be reduced to 25,500 tonnes by 2010. Yet, in practice, around 50,000-60,000 tonnes of fish are landed because even legal catches are not properly monitored, and there is a thriving illegal fishery too.
The reason is that like any international organisation, ICCAT is little more than the sum of its member states. The office in Madrid is a secretariat that compiles statistics and organises scientific advice. It is not responsible for management. The real work is done at meetings of ICCATs 46 members, where fisheries science collides with political horse-trading. At the next meeting, from 17th to 24th November, in Marrakech, the impending crisis will be the main item on the agenda. Fbio Hazin, chairman of ICCAT, says better management has been implemented but warns that scientific advice must be heeded.
Environmentalists have taken hope from a resolution passed at Septembers meeting of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, the organisation which, among other things, hands out labels such as critically endangered. Most countries, including Spain (an important tuna-fishing nation) and Japan (the main buyer of bluefin), voted in favour of a moratorium on catching the species, followed by improved management and control measures. However, what is said in the open at an environmental meeting may be different from what is done behind the closed doors of ICCATs meeting. Britain, for example, voted in favour of the moratorium, but its delegation to Marrakech plans only to ask for quotas based on science.
In a similar vein, one of ICCATs most important participants, the European Union, said on October 28th that it would champion bold and decisive measures. But all it is offering in practice is to attempt to resolve the issue of overcapacity, reduce the length of the fishing seasons, and identify specific measures that can reinforce control throughout the market chain. A spokeswoman for the EUs fisheries directorate said the negotiations would respect scientific advice but would also take into account the positions of stakeholders and NGOs, and added that a moratorium would mean despair for Italian, Spanish and French fishermen. ICCAT, she added, works very well.
Andy Rosenberg, a fisheries scientist at the University of New Hampshire who is one of Dr MacKenzies fellow authors, explains that member nations of ICCAT such as Italy, Spain and France allow their fishermen to go on fishing despite the fact that they belong to an international body that is supposed to have agreed on conservation measures. And Dr Powers says if ICCATs members cannot both enforce the rules and accept that the quotas need to be small, then a complete moratorium may be the best way forward.
ICCAT, which was created in 1969, is one of the oldest of what are known as the regional fisheries-management organisations. Then, bluefin tuna were so abundant that they were found throughout the North Sea and the Baltic, as well as in the Mediterranean. If this is an organisation that is working well, it is hard to imagine what failure would look like.
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Issues/Corruption / mismanagement
Issues/Monitoring, control and surveillance
Ocean Areas/Mediterranean Sea
Ocean Areas/North Atlantic Ocean