Saving the bluefin tuna: an expert explains Canada's bind

"If you look at it from a Canadian perspective, you’d almost say, this is crazy."

News that Canada sided with Japan in opposing a United Nations ban on exports of bluefin tuna at first sounded like an embarrassing case of Ottawa being on the wrong side on a pressing conservation issue.

The bluefin is an iconic species: big, fast, wide-ranging, dangerously depleted—and incredibly valuable for sushi, which is why Japan took its stand. The Canadian government’s refusal to side with U.S. in supporting ban on the bluefin trade under the UN”s Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, known as CITES, seemed to put the Harper government squarely in the camp of environmental bad actors.

But the situation isn’t quite that clear-cut. Although Canada might indeed be on the wrong side of the CITES debate, this isn’t an extension of irresponsible fisheries policy when it comes to bluefin.

I called marine biologist Mike Stokesbury, senior project manager of Dalhousie University’s Ocean Tracking Network, who co-authored a bluefin population study published in Nature, to try to sort it out. Here’s an edited version of our conversation:

Q. What’s the first thing we need to know about bluefin tuna?

A. These are highly migratory animals. They cross the ocean and go great distances. Only recently have we had an idea of the stock structure and how they mix. Basically there is an eastern stock in the Mediterranean, which has been fished for thousands of years—the Romans had a bluefin on a coin—and there’s a smaller western stock on our side of the Atlantic Ocean. They mix throughout the Atlantic.

Q. So what’s the state of the bluefins Canadians fish, the western stock?

A. The western population was fished down really heavily in the Seventies and early Eighties. The estimates are now 12 to 15 per cent of its pre-fisheries abundance.

Q. Who did most of that over-fishing?

A. The Americans mostly. The smaller bluefins keep in the south a bit because they can’t stand the cold temperatures. So the ones that make it to Canadian waters are really the big ones. During the Seventies and Eighties the Americans had these purse seine fisheries, where they’d surround a whole school and take them. They fished the juveniles really hard. At the same time, the Japanese used to long-line in the Gulf of Mexico, which is the breeding ground. So you had the adults being hit by the Japanese, the small ones being hit by the Americans.

Q. But fishing of the western population has been less intensive since the mid-Eighties?

A. Yes. The population has been at a very low level, but a steady level. Recently, the American fishery has crashed, possibly because the fish are moving north because of warmer temperatures as the climate changes.

Q. What about the fishery over on the European side?

A. They had no quotas for a long time, then really high quotas. There’s a lot of illegal fishing and a lot of over fishing. That population has crashed to 15 or 18 per cent of what it was in the 1970s.

Q. Who’s doing most of the fishing there?

A.  A lot of countries. France, Spain, Portugal. There’s some Japanese quota. This whole CITES thing was aimed at the eastern population. The fishing is just so out of control there.

Q. Why not just ban fishing of the eastern stocks then?

A. The way CITES works, for bluefin you’d have to list both stocks because they mingle up in the North Atlantic. You’re out in the middle of the ocean, just west of the Flemish Cap, and you catch one, you don’t know if it’s from the eastern or western stock.

Q. If the western population hasn’t been grossly over-fished for about 25 years, has population rebounded?

A. My perception is they brought the fishing levels down in the west quite far so the projections were that the stocks would come back. But that hasn’t happened, which is why some of the research projects I’ve been involved with were initiated.

Q. Why hasn’t the western population hasn’t recovered?

A. One reason is mixing on the feeding grounds. A lot of our fish cross the imaginary line in the middle of the Atlantic and get caught by other countries. Another thing is that this is imperfect science: these things are hard to figure out and manage.

Q. The Canadian government claims our bluefin practices are exemplary. Are they?

A. It really is true. In Canada the bluefin industry is really well regulated. The fishermen obey all the rules. It’s really well done.

Q. So it’s a sensible policy for Ottawa to present itself as a model?

A. Canada’s quota has traditionally been less than one per cent of the Atlantic and Mediterranean quota. So we’re a really small player. And these other countries either don’t have the will or don’t have the ability to manage their fisheries in the way that we do.

Q. Sounds like Canada’s in a bind. Our fishery is fine, but we can’t realistically expect others to follow suit. Does that leave the export ban as the only solution after all?

A. If you look at it from a Canadian perspective, you’d almost say, this is crazy. Why would we sign up for an export ban? The U.S. has a domestic market to sell bluefin into—they’re net importers of bluefin. So a CITES ban would have no effect on their fishery. Canada, on the other hand, has no domestic market: our industry would just go

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