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18th Apr 13Managed by Chatham House
Financed by DEFRA
Rare tuna? Fishermen protest proposed CITES listing for bluefin tuna
Chatham - Fish buyer Robert Fitzpatrick of Magura America Inc. has seen the demand for tuna plummet in high-end restaurants in Manhattan.
“With one customer I typically sell 35 or 40 fish a year,” said Chatham’s Fitzpatrick. “[This year,] I sold them two.”
With more than five million Atlantic bluefin tuna in the ocean, Fitzpatrick finds it hard to believe, but his white tablecloth market is drying up because people say the fish are on the verge of extinction.
“It’s very frustrating,” he said.
The reason for the suspension of reality, he and others say, is because of a coordinated campaign by several environmental groups. Their marketing has prompted many to feel guilty about eating the sleek fish.
But the situation could get worse.
The groups, including Oceana, have been trumpeting that the bluefin tuna is endangered and are lobbying it be listed on CITES, the Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species. If that happens, fishermen will not be able to sell tuna in overseas markets, such as Japan.
Although the market in the United States is healthy, the bulk of the popular fish is caught during the late summer and early fall so the concern is the fish would glut the market, sending prices plummeting.
In years past, so many boats would descend on the waters off Chatham it looked like small cities sprang up overnight. When the 1,000-pound big eyes were brought to port, Japanese buyers would name a price for the delicacy; the industry was so lucrative that the big fish were nicknamed Toyotas because fishermen were able to buy a small foreign truck with the money a fish brought in. Towns and businesses benefited as well with increased mooring fees and traffic.
In recent years the bite has dropped off – some people think many of the fish have moved to Canada, others blame the huge mid-water herring trawls that catch the tuna’s favorite meal – but in the last two years the fish have returned, albeit in smaller numbers.
The resurgence has been exciting for fishermen but a CITES listing would kill the fishery, many believe.
“You’d see a lot of fishermen going out of business,” said Ben Martens of Cape Cod Commercial Hook Fishermen’s Association.
To try and prevent that, close to 20 fishermen, several from Chatham, flew down to Washington, D.C., last week to ask members of a fish and wildlife committee to vote against placing the stringent protection on the fish.
Martens was among them.
“This is a problem,” he said of the potential listing. “Bluefin is making up a bigger and bigger portion of our fishermen’s annual income.”
The hook association is quick to talk conservation when necessary, but trusted scientists in the region, including Molly Lutcavage of the University of New Hampshire’s Large Pelagic Research Lab, who has spent years following and tagging tuna, have said they are far from the verge of extinction.
“There isn’t a credible scientist in the entire world who says you have a species on the edge,” said Steve Weiner, a director of American Bluefin Tuna Association.
That is not to say that Lutcavage, the hook association and fishermen themselves, believe the population is well managed – far from it.
For 30 years fishermen in the United States and Canada have seen their quota slashed and size limits increased. (A tuna has to be longer than 6 feet to be sold commercially here, which is much larger than most other countries’ regulations.)
While this was happening, Weiner said, fishermen and scientists pushed hard to have ICAT, the International Convention on Atlantic Tuna, which regulates the highly migratory species, impose strict quotas on countries across the ocean.
For decades, fishermen in countries such as France, Spain and Italy have caught far more than their allotted quota.
A CITES listing will hurt those who have fished responsibly as well as those who ignored the rules.
“They have been taking it on the chin for a long time,” said Martens of the U.S. fishermen. “It will be punishing people who have been doing the right thing and it might not have any real effect in the end.”
Weiner agreed. He said the United States will obey the listing; other countries that have created the problem can choose to ignore it.
Gib Brogan, Oceana’s representative for the Northeast, said it’s “absolutely true” that U.S. fishermen have done their part for conservation. The problem, he said, are the “bad actors” in other countries who continue to overfish.
The population may look all right in the “snapshot” local fishermen see, he said, but the stock as a whole is in trouble. So much so, Brogan added, that the scientific committee for ICAT has said the tuna meet all the requirements for a CITES listing.
And, Brogan continued, the news may be good for fishermen. A study done by the National Marine Fisheries Service shows revenue rises under the ban.
“American fishermen may actually see an increase because they’ll find a domestic market,” Brogan said. (Oceana isn’t advocating that people stop eating tuna.)
Weiner said the CITES stick has done some good. The threat of the listing has convinced many European countries to reduce their catch limits and to promise enforcement.
Weiner and other fishermen want to see if the reduction in quotas down to about 13 million metric tons from close to 60 work.
“To have effective management, you have to have all the countries playing ball,” he said.
Fitzpatrick said the environmental groups should congratulate themselves for accomplishing the goal fishermen here have been working on for years. The conservation groups should now back off, he said, or risk putting countless people out of business unnecessarily just to claim success.
“They are willing to throw us under the bus to get the trophy on the wall,” he said.
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