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18th Apr 13Managed by Chatham House
Financed by DEFRA
It's not too late to save the tuna - The U.S. should step forward to stop exploitation of the seas
June 8 marks the first United Nations-recognized World Oceans Day. Yet even as our appreciation of the world's oceans grows, we find the seas around us in crisis. The burning of fossil fuels is slowly acidifying the oceans, with disturbing implications for marine life. Meanwhile, nearly 80% of the world's wild fish are either fully or over-exploited. Catches of wild fish peaked in 1988.
Now we hear that climate change is linked to that other tragedy of the global commons, over-fishing. Scientists tell us that the droppings of bony fish play a significant but unrecognized role in keeping the upper levels of the oceans alkaline and therefore absorbing carbon dioxide. So wild fish, over-exploited in so many oceans of the world, turn out to be crucial to a healthy planet and to human survival.
Our understanding of the oceans has never been greater. Yet we seem determined to repeat the tragedies of the past. The forces of selfishness and stupidity that wiped out the great whales and the northern cod in the last century are steaming ahead at full speed. This time it is the bluefin tuna that faces extinction. This amazing creature accelerates faster than a sports car and migrates across whole oceans. But it has the misfortune to have exquisite-tasting flesh. Large specimens fetch thousands of dollars for sushi and sashimi. There may not be large specimens around much longer.
The bluefin has been listed as an endangered species for over a decade by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. It is as endangered as the giant panda and the white rhino. But to Europe and America's shame, fishermen in the Eastern Atlantic and the Mediterranean are continuing to take twice the number scientists advise and the stock is on the verge of collapse. Records suggest that the size of adult tuna migrating to the Mediterranean is half that of a decade ago, a classic indication of population collapse. The World Wildlife Fund is now predicting that bluefin spawners will be virtually eradicated by 2012.
This collapse is the result of a colossal failure by the U.N.'s International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (Iccat). Iccat's management of the bluefin has been an international disgrace. Slow to regulate the growth of tuna "farming" (in fact, ranching with wild-caught fish) when the practice began to sweep the Mediterranean more than a decade ago, it has since consistently set catch quotas far higher than scientists advise and presided over a spectacular free-for-all of illegal fishing with spotter planes and the whole modern hi-tech arsenal. Poor enforcement has meant catches in the Mediterranean peaked at 61,000 tons of bluefin in 2007, more than double the official total allowable catch and four-times what science advised. No wonder stocks are in trouble.
The last straw for environmental groups -- and a snub to the U.S., Canada and Norway, nations that have consistently argued for rational management -- was when the Iccat set a total allowable catch of 22,000 tons this year for the Eastern Atlantic and the Mediterranean, despite its own scientists recommending a quota of 8,000 to 15,000 tons. This was clearly against the long-term interests of the 500 million citizens of the European Union and indeed against the long-term interests of the fishery itself.
Conservation groups are now calling for the management of the bluefin to be taken out of Iccat's hands and placed under the control of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites), which is presided over by trade and environment ministers rather than fisheries ministers. Cites could then list bluefin under Appendix 1 of the Convention, which bans all international trade. This would be the first ever Appendix 1 listing for a commercial fish species, and is not surprisingly opposed by fishing nations.
Because Cites is an intergovernmental treaty, a member nation must first propose the Appendix 1 listing. Monaco, a non-EU member, is ready to champion the bluefin and propose the listing. But Monaco needs to be supported by other partners in what is sure to be a bitter fight. In 1992, the last time Cites attempted to protect the bluefin, the proposer, Sweden, eventually quailed under Japanese threats of trade sanctions.
If the listing is to succeed, Monaco's main partner needs to be the United States. It would not be the first time that the U.S. has stepped in to help a Europe that is unable to help itself. An alliance needs to be forged this summer and a listing proposal made in October in time for the next meeting of Cites in Doha, Qatar, next March. If that is to happen, decisions need to be made soon by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in the U.S. and embraced by President Barack Obama over the summer.
The heartening difference between climate change and the crisis of overfishing is that we stand a far greater chance of doing something about overfishing. The costs and benefits are clear. If nothing is done, prices will rise as stocks dwindle and the bluefin goes the way of the blue whale. But if prompt action is taken millions will benefit, not only from the recovery of tuna stocks but from the many services other than food that a healthy ocean provides.
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Issues/Corruption / mismanagement
Ocean Areas/Mediterranean Sea
Ocean Areas/North Atlantic Ocean