Oh ICCAT, why are you so useless? I guess you can't really help it with crazy nations like Canada arguing to increase a quota on a bluefin tuna stock that has been fished to near collapse, poisoned by a massive oil spill in their spawning grounds, and has been battling to recover for years with no success. But alas, this year was the year to prove yourself, ICCAT, and instead you showed the world you intend to live up to your nickname- The International Conspiracy to Catch All Tunas.
ICCAT (International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas) is an inter-governmental fishery organization charged with managing and conserving tunas and tuna-like species in the Atlantic Ocean and its adjacent seas. The problem has been that the managing and conserving part has not been ICCAT's forte.
One repeat mismanagement offender, the Canadian government, set out to this year's ICCAT meeting with a goal of increasing the quota by 15% and improving monitoring of the catch. Now I could get on board with the latter if I didn't believe the fishery should in fact be placed under moratorium, but the former truly provides insight into the cozy relationship between our federal fisheries ministry and the fishing industry and how short-term gains cloud judgment when it comes to realizing inevitable long-term pain.
Luckily, Canada didn't get their wish, and the western quota went down to 1750 tonnes from 1800 tonnes, but if Canada had joined its neighbours to the south, with whom we share the western stock, and called for a quota cut, perhaps a true precautionary approach could have been taken to protect the stock. A measly 50 tonnes (less than 3% reduction) aint gonna cut it.
The Canadian government argued that a quota increase was justified given the scientific advice from ICCAT's scientific committee and given the fact that fishermen off Canada's east coast caught their quota quickly this year and the fish were big and healthy. Well, the reality is that because of data deficiencies and uncertainties, the scientific committee's predictions aren't as celebratory as we'd like.
One scenario suggests rebuilding is possible with current catch levels while another suggests it isn't possible even with no catch. The 2003 year class was found to be strong while the subsequent year classes were found to be the lowest yet. The fishermen may have had a successful catch this year, but that has no bearing on next year, or the next year, and whether the stock is showing some sign of rebuilding or not, IT IS STILL LESS THAN 20% OF HISTORIC LEVELS! You add to this the fact that early studies suggest that about 20% of juvenile western bluefin tuna were killed in the Gulf of Mexico spawning grounds during the Horizon spill, and you have even more uncertainty about the future health of this stock.
For all these reasons, groups have been calling to have bluefin tuna legally protected on both sides of the border. Greenpeace is supporting the Center for Biological Diversity in the US in their quest to get bluefin listed under the Endangered Species Act, and is calling on the Canadian government to protect them under the Species at Risk Act as it is up for review this year.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic, environmental groups and other advocates for bluefin protection are feeling a similar post-ICCAT hangover after feeling drunk with rage while watching delegates disregard the science and refuse to proceed with caution in managing the ailing eastern stock.
As my colleague, and the head of Greenpeace's delegation at ICCAT this year writes:
"Once again, ICCAT’s 10-day meeting has resulted in a new fishing quota for bluefin, this time of 12,900 tons – a tiny reduction on last year’s quota of 13,500 tons. Come May, sanctioned by the very organisation which is supposed to “conserve” tuna, destructive purse-seine fishing vessels in the Mediterranean will cast their nets again on this hugely depleted species. Let’s put a marker down here and now – the governments and delegates at this ICCAT session must be noted in history as those people that have failed this magnificent species.
Spare a moment to contemplate just how bad the result is. The quota that governments have given on bluefin tuna is deemed by ICCAT’s own scientists to provide only a 70% chance of recovery. Put another way, that’s a 30% chance of failure. Are these acceptable risks when we are talking about the future of a species?
I have a question for each of the governments who have failed bluefin tuna at this meeting: would you get in an airplane or a car if you were told that there was a 30% chance that you would not reach your target destination alive?
Yet again, the pursuit of short-term profit has won out over the need to protect a species, and our oceans, for the future. This is hardly surprising given the number of fishing industry representatives and fishermen who have turned up here in Paris to lobby for continued fishing."
When I attended the CITES meeting in Doha earlier in the year, many nations argued against protection for bluefin because they believed ICCAT was the place to regulate the fishery. But when it came to ICCAT, these words once again were not translated into action. And so the ICCAT process turns through another full cycle and the destructive fishing continues.
If there is a future for bluefin tuna, one that is now highly uncertain, it lies beyond ICCAT’s weak decision-makers and secret negotiations. ICCAT had its chance. It blew it. Now we need to find a way to hold fisheries managers and governments to account- publically- in the hope that we can change the way we manage our oceans: for the benefit of the hundreds of millions who rely on them."