The United States’ National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) disappointed the environmental community when it refused to take initiative and help conserve what's left of the western Atlantic bluefin tuna by listing the species as endangered under the Endangered Species Act(ESA). Such a listing would have prohibited American fishers and retailers from fishing or selling the species.
Instead, the U.S. shifted the responsibility to international bodies, such as the United Nations and International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT). While ICCAT did recently take a step to close the Spanish bluefin tuna fishery due to Spain exhausting its own quota, ICCAT and member nations party to UN’s Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) have shown underwhelming efforts to curb overfishing or protect this species, leaving little faith in these processes. Last year, Canada and Japan blocked the motion to list bluefin under CITES which would prohibit the trade of the species. ICCAT has repeatedly failed to take scientific advice and cut fishing effort way down, and last month, it was unable to control bluefin fishing in the Mediterranean, permitting Libyan boats to leave European ports to fish in Libyan waters despite mass opposition.
Meanwhile, NOAA listed the species as a ‘species of concern,’ meaning that the agency will monitor the species while awaiting more data and international action. The agency also stated that in order to be listed as endangered, a species must be in imminent danger of becoming extinct. This begs the question: what exactly are they waiting for? Scientists unanimously agree that bluefin stocks have declined by 80 percent of their historic levels. The BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill last year occurred at the height of bluefin spawning season, killing scores of juveniles and who knows how this will impact the future health of the population or how the spawners that endured the spill will affected. Wouldn't common sense lead regulators to err on the side of caution and protect the stressed stock from additonal pressure?
Action is required on behalf of individual countries in addition to international bodies to protect this fish. As a self-proclaimed ‘world leader,’ the United States needs to step up to the plate on conservation and legally protect this fish. Bluefin tuna fishing needs to be suspended, at least until the stocks recover to a sustainable level, and fishing methods need to change and stricter regulations in fisheries are required so that the species is not caught as by-catch and thrown overboard, dead or dying. However, without protection on both sides of the border, tuna would still be caught in Canadian waters.
Bluefin tuna is currently up for listing under Canada's Species at Risk Act (SARA) and scientists have already determined that it is worthy of listing. We certainly hope that Canada will step up where the US has not, and protect this iconic fish from further devastation.