Analysis: a failure of governance dooms the bluefin tuna

Let’s be absolutely clear. The people whose task it is to manage the bluefin tuna stocks of the Atlantic have failed once again, even under the eyes of the world, to take the advice of their own scientists. They should now be brushed aside.

The Atlantic tuna commission, meeting in Porto de Galinhas, Brazil, has agreed a proposal to drop the catch limit for bluefin tuna in the Eastern Atlantic and the Mediterranean next year from 19,500 tons to 13,500 tons.

I was at the meeting and interviewed the chief scientist of the commission, Dr Gerald P Scott and he told me that in the present uncertain state of bluefin stocks – which in layman’s terms are in a state of collapse - 15,000 tons doesn’t meet the commission’s recovery plan which looks for a 50 per cent chance of recovery by 2023.

The paper Dr Scott showed to the meeting showed that only a 8500 ton quota might have a chance of meeting the commission’s remarkably weak objective for recovery. Only a total closure of the fishery yielded a significant chance of the bluefin recovering from a serious threat of commercial extinction.

So the proposal for a 13,500 ton quota by the chairman of the meeting, supported by the EU, Japan, Morocco and Tunisia, is a political quota, not a scientific one. It is far too high. No wonder the United States did not support it. No wonder the environmentalists are portraying it as a failure. The only silver lining is that this decision could, just conceivably, lead to the management of the bluefin being taken away from the tuna commission.

Susan Lieberman of the Pew Environment Group, a US-based not-for-profit organisation, responded to the news by saying: “When you adjust the new catch limit to account for over-fishing and rampant illegal fishing by some countries and add in ICCAT’s poor enforcement and compliance record, the prospects for the recovery of the once-abundant Atlantic bluefin are dismal.”

No one is that surprised, though. For it has turned out that the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) was mis-named, for it has never once taken scientific advice literally in its 40-year history as you will see from my article in the Sunday Times.

The result of the meeting is now likely to increase demands for international trade in bluefin to be banned by being listed on Appendix 1 of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), the same provision that was used to save the African elephant in the 1980s after an epidemic of ivory poaching.

The EU was unable to agree to support such a listing in September, with the six Mediterranean nations forming a blocking minority and 21 nations in favour. That decision is likely to have to be formally revisited now before the CITES meeting in Doha next March.

The ICCAT meeting formally identified nearly all the countries catching bluefin for breaking the rules – a new thing – one of the most common infringements was tuna fattening farms accepting fish without proper documentation to show that they had been legally caught.

Despite a week spent at the five-star resort, delegates were unable to agree on measures to protect vulnerable shark species. They did agree to ban the retention and landing of bigeye threshers, one of the slowest growing and most vulnerable sharks, but allowed Mexico an exemption to catch 110 of them. They put off until next year any consideration of measures to prevent 12,500 vulnerable seabirds being caught by tuna long-line fleets.

In a further instance of what environmentalists were portraying as overall failure, officials among the Atlantic nations endorsed the use of “wall of death” drift nets by Morocco for another two years.

Moroccan fishermen are estimated to kill 4,000 dolphins and 25,000 sharks in their drift nets each year. Drift nets have been banned internationally by the UN since 1992.

Dr Sergi Tudela of the environmental group, WWF, said: “This year all contracting parties talked of the need to restore ICCAT’s credibility, and to do so they endorse the slaughter of 50,000 more sharks and 8,000 more dolphins, violating UN resolutions?

“It is beyond belief and is one more proof of the total dysfunction of ICCAT as a serious fisheries management organisation.”

No comment was available from the ICCAT contracting parties or the European Commission last night on the decisions made at the meeting.


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