Negotiating with biology

by Guest Blogger

November 11, 2009

Willie, from Greenpeace UK, blogs from Brazil, where he is attending the ICCAT meeting.

As I write this, I’m sitting in the plenary room of the ICCAT meeting, whilst Charles Clover’s film ‘The End of The Line‘ is being screened. This in itself is a great coup.

In a memorable scene from the film, whilst attending a previous ICCAT meeting, Clover himself chastized the bureaucrats in that meeting for setting irresponsibly high quotas that ignored scientific advice. In his words they were ‘…negotiating with biology. And you just can’t do that, and expect to see the biology survive’.

It’s a stunningly simple thing. Fishing is harvesting wild animals, and that can only happen if there are healthy populations of those animals, which in turn means healthy ecosystems to support them. And you simply can’t take out more fish than is being replenished. Fish, like any other animals, are only a renewable resource up to a point!



Organisations like ICCAT, which are Fisheries Management Organizations, theoretically exist to make sure that the countries involved are managing the fisheries, OUR fisheries, effectively. But there’s a catch. To you and me this would mean setting sensible quotas and not trashing fish stocks. But many of the people involved in ICCAT and other such organizations, seem to think their job is to squeeze every last fish out of the oceans, and keep their fishing industries happy. So when it comes down to setting quotas, it doesn’t quite make sense.

ICCAT gets its own scientists to give it information on the stocks for which it is responsible (tuna, swordfish, sailfish and sharks). It then uses those to decide on quotas, which is a game of political haggling until an agreement is reached. Note that I said it ‘uses’ those. It isn’t bound by them, and sometimes it just ignores them altogether. In fact they routinely set quotas vastly higher than the upper limits of what the scientists suggest would be safe especially on lucrative species like bluefin.

This is utter madness.

This year with huge amounts of public pressure, bad press, and celebrity outrage at the state of bluefin, ICCAT members are all talking very sincerely about setting catch levels that ‘follow the science’. Surely they should be bound by the scientific recommendations – otherwise, what’s the point of having them? Surely it should not take campaigns and catastrophic stock collapses to make ICCAT see that?

The starting point for ICCAT, and other fisheries management organizations should be the science, and the quotas shouldn’t exceed that. But that in itself isn’t even enough, as the New York Times has ably pointed out this week.  We are doing lots of things to our oceans, trashing other species as bycatch and altering ecosystems in ways we can’t imagine. So we should be much more precautionary than the science suggests, especially when we factor in illegal fishing activity (which, as we know, is rampant for the profitable bluefin).

ICCAT has its work cut out. It has been dragged kicking and screaming to the realization that it has mismanaged bluefin tuna. And that’s just the tip of the fishy iceberg. Most of the species under ICCAT’s control are large predatory species, and globally they have declined by 90% over the last few decades. 

No wonder ICCAT is uncomfortable that the world is watching them this week.  But it remains to be seen if they will be shamed into usefulness. I’ll keep you posted.


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