Last chance for bluefin tuna, too late for real conservation

Feature story - March 8, 2010
So the world is finally waking up to the fact that the bluefin tuna is in crisis. That's nice. But decades of overfishing have pushed this majestic fish to the brink of extinction, which is not the point at which we should start thinking about conservation. The situation is so extreme that an international trade ban is now its only hope of survival.

Captive Bluefin Tuna inside a transport cage. Greenpeace is calling on the countries of the Mediterranean to protect bluefin tuna with marine reserves in their breeding and feeding areas.

Last week the US did the right thing. Following the example of Monaco, the UK, the Netherlands and Sweden, amongst others, it agreed to support a proposal to list bluefin on Appendix I of the Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), meeting March 13-25 in Doha, Qatar. Appendix I is where the most endangered species are collected, in practical terms it would mean no more trade in bluefin until stocks recover. 

It is the last chance for bluefin. These "Shepherds of the Seas" which can accelerate faster than a Porsche, and swim at speeds of up to 60 mph - are in serious trouble.

In 1999, we showed how in the Mediterranean bluefin tuna stocks had collapsed by by 80 percent. Ten years later, scientists found that the population of Atlantic bluefin tuna is below 15 percent of what it was before commercial fishing began. 

This sorry state of affairs is a combination of ever-growing demand for bluefin on international markets and atrocious management of the species. The International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT), has repeatedly ignored the advice of its own scientists and failed to tackle overfishing and pirate fishing of the species. 

Is this the best that modern fisheries management can deliver? Agreement to act on  protecting a species only when it faces extinction?

CITES - likely to be a bloody affair 

As the CITES meeting draws closer, the stage is being set for a serious showdown. A ban would need to see two-thirds of the approximately 175 governments that are party to CITES, vote in favour.

The US may be onside, but there are plenty of others whose short-sighted thinking threatens to push bluefin over the edge. 

Japan is the world's largest importer of bluefin - a single fish can fetch up to US$100,000 on its markets - it is vehemently opposed to the ban and is loudly threatening to do everything it can to stop the ban. 

Both Canada and China have also gone on record as saying they will vote against a ban. Others such as Australia, New Zealand, and Brazil remain on the fence.

Meanwhile in-fighting within the European Union is threatening to leave it with no position at all. This would spell disaster for the bluefin. 

EU infighting threatening its support of the ban

EU countries take over 50 percent of the bluefin catch, and are responsible for most pirate fishing of the species. 

The EU's Mediterranean countries, like Spain, Malta and Greece are all publicly fighting hard against the EU supporting the listing proposal spearheaded by Monaco.

Yet, many EU member states support the ban. The UK, the Netherlands, Sweden, Poland and Germany, for instance, are championing it. Even Italy, whose fleets are responsible for much of the overfishing has come out in support. 

France recently announced its support of the ban. Like Italy, France has a terrible reputation in the bluefin fishery. Italian and French support, however, comes with a giant health warning - they will only support the ban if there is months of delay before it is implemented. There is no justifiable reason for this - after all it is only putting off the inevitable and pushing stocks into further decline. A cynic might suggest that the delay is a tactic to buy more time to undermine the ban behind closed doors, while publicly getting kudos for supporting it. 

If the EU fails to get it together to agree a united position backing the ban without any conditions attached, the entire Doha meeting may fail. If this happens and bluefin is condemned to collapse, the EU's credibility as a voice for species protection will lie in tatters. 

We urge the EU to do the right thing. Supporting the ban is the very least it can do for bluefin. 

Need for CITES listing exposes failure of global fisheries management 

The Atlantic bluefin crisis is so severe that if the proposal to list it on CITES Appendix I fails, the fishery has probably no hope of survival. The current bluefin crisis is the worst recent example of how governments and fisheries management organisations are failing our oceans. But, it is far from the only one. From North Sea cod to Pacific bigeye tuna global fish stocks are in serious trouble. 

Getting the listing is the last chance bluefin has for survival. But, it can never be considered a "win" to have had to take such extreme measures to pull a species back from the brink. As our US oceans campaigner John Hocevar puts it "a CITES listing is not management, it is a last ditch effort to prevent extinction."

Our global oceans are in crisis; more than 40 percent are heavily degraded. Three quarters of fish stocks are either overfished or severely depleted. 

It is not too late to save our seas, to shift the balance of human impacts from harm to protection. Greenpeace campaigns for a global network of marine reserves, national parks at sea to cover 40 percent of the world's oceans.  Marine reserves are areas closed to all extractive uses, such as fishing and mining. A growing body of scientific evidence demonstrates that the establishment of large-scale networks of marine reserves is not only urgently needed to protect marine species and their habitats, but could also be crucial to reverse the decline of global fisheries.

Take Action

Tuna wouldn't be in this predicament if we had set aside forty percent of the world's oceans as marine reserves, protected from fishing. It may be too late for the Bluefin, but if we want fish tomorrow, we need marine reserves today.

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