A glimmer of hope—just—for the bluefin tuna

It’s impossible to be very optimistic about the future of the mighty bluefin tuna, but it’s too soon to give up on the species.

Rapacious over-fishing, mostly to satisfy Japan’s appetite for sushi, has reduced bluefin stocks in the Atlantic and Mediterranean by perhaps 70 per cent since the 1970s. Despite that population collapse, 72 out of the 129 member nations of CITES—the UN’s Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora—voted last week against a proposed ban on bluefin exports.

Canada was among the countries that voted against CITES protection for the bluefin, which was proposed by Monaco and championed by the U.S. After the vote, I turned to a widely respected marine biologist for insights. Mike Stokesbury, senior project manager of Dalhousie University’s Ocean Tracking Network, put the Canadian position in context: the vote looks wrong-headed, but Canada’s recent record in bluefin conservation is exemplary.

As Stokesbury explained, the two bluefin populations, those of the eastern and western Atlantic, range widely and sometimes mingle. That makes it hard to strictly separate the two stocks for conservation purposes. While the western bluefin fishery has been reasonably well managed in recent years, the eastern stocks have been scandalously over-exploited.

I also spoke with Ernie Cooper, leader of WWF-Canada’s wildlife trade team. Cooper is attending the CITES conference in Doha where the bluefin trade ban was voted down, and when I reached him by phone, he sounded stricken by that outcome, which he described as a “crushing defeat.”

Yet even this dedicated environmentalist found it hard to castigate Canada for voting against the ban. “There is recognition that Canada is managing the fishery correctly,” he said. The CITES ban, Cooper added, would have penalized Canadian fishermen for the “utter chaos in the Mediterranean.”

Still, it’s no help to the bluefin for Canada to be a responsible niche player in a broadly reprehensible trade. Without a CITES ban, the only hope for this iconic fish appears to be a dramatic change in the ways of the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas—the organization of fishing countries that has for decades proven itself an abject failure at protecting the bluefin.

Based on its history, nobody should trust ICCAT. But there is room for a glimmer of extremely guarded optimism. “In the past year,” Cooper said, “ICAAT has moved more toward conservation of bluefin tuna than it ever has.” He attributes the change to the looming CITES vote. Last fall, ICCAT cut the bluefin quota by one-third to13,500 tonnes in 2010.

Some experts view even that lower ICCAT quota as too little far too late, and some question the group’s ability or will to enforce the lower catch limits. But not all despair. “If the new quota were to be respected for several years,” marine biologist Alain Fonteneau of the French Institute for Development Research said in this news story, “there would be no more scientific justification for banning international trade in the fish.”

Canada’s intervention in Doha at the CITES conference included a bold claim that the toothless ICCAT of old might now be worth something.

“We have commitments to implement precautionary harvest levels in the future,” the Canadian government delegate said of ICCAT.“We have increased monitoring measures, including a catch and trade tracking scheme, which showed in 2009 that we can identify, and restrict, illegal fishing and effectively control trade. And we have finally begun to follow ICCAT procedures for dealing with identified non-compliance. In short, we now have in place measures under ICCAT that can ensure the sustainability of this species.”

That’s a putting a lot of faith in a group with a terrible track record. Here’s a suggestion: Ottawa should pledge that if ICCAT falls short of its high expectations in controlling this year’s haul of eastern Atlantic bluefin, then Canada will sponsor the next motion to list the species under CITES.

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