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Environmentalists: fishing quota could be death sentence for bluefin tuna

Once again, the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tuna (ICCAT) has flouted warnings from conservationists, evidence from scientists, and even recommendations from the European Commissioner Fisheries and Maritime Affairs in its most recent fishing quota for the Atlantic bluefin tuna. Meeting last week in Paris, ICCAT agreed to a 2011 fishing quota of 12,900 metric tons, 600 less than this year’s quota. Yet, environmentalists from a wide-range of organizations have been warning for years that without a moratorium on bluefin fishing—or at least a drastic reduction in quotas—the species is at risk of extinction. ICCAT’s own scientists say that the current quota gives the species a 70% chance of recovery.

“The word ‘conservation’ should be removed from ICCAT’s name. Governments here have just agreed to a bluefin fishing plan that scientists conclude has a shocking one-third chance of failing to protect the species. Would you get in an airplane or car if you were told that it had a 30 percent chance of crashing?” said Greenpeace International oceans campaigner Oliver Knowles, adding that “this is a monumental failure of the way governments are supposed to protect our oceans.”

As top predators, bluefin tuna play a vital role in the marine ecosystem. Photo courtesy of NOAA.

Since 1970 the Atlantic bluefin tuna populations have fallen by 80% due to industrial overfishing, pushing the species to be listed as Critically Endangered by the IUCN Red List. In 2009, ICCAT researchers said a global ban on Atlantic bluefin tuna was justified given that the fish spawning biomass was 15% of its pre-industrial fishing stock. However, delegates defended this year’s quota.

“The actual catch level will be around 11,000, which is a large reduction off current levels,” the head of the Japanese delegation to ICCAT, Masanori Miyahara, told the AFP. Miyahara pointed out that some member nations have stated they wouldn’t fish their full quota. However, the quota ignores the black-market trade in bluefin tuna, which takes thousands of tons of bluefin tuna every year as well.

The European Commissioner for Fisheries and Maritime Affairs in October proposed a quota of 6,000 tons, allowing the bluefin tuna a better chance to recover. However according to media reports, the EU, along with host nation France under pressure from the fishing industry, pushed for a much higher quota and got it.

“Despite sound science to show how threatened these species are—and all the recent evidence of fraud, laundering and illegal fishing—Atlantic bluefin tuna once again were denied the protection they desperately need. ICCAT member governments had more than enough information to act decisively. They failed to do so,” said Dr. Susan Lieberman, director of international policy for the Pew Environment Group, in a press statement.

The bad news for Atlantic bluefin tuna follows a failure to protect the species at the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) this year, largely due to aggressive lobbying by Japan, which alone consumes three-quarters of the trade.

An analysis last year by WWF predicted that the Atlantic bluefin tuna population in the Mediterranean will become functionally extinct by 2012 if the fishery isn’t closed. According to the report Mediterranean bluefin breeding population’s were cut in half between 2002 and 2007, while the size of breeding fish also fell by half over fifteen years.

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(06/07/2010) Things have become ugly in the Mediterranean: over the weekend, fishermen and Greenpeace activists squared off over the fate of the Critically Endangered bluefin tuna. One run-in, in which Greenpeace worked to free tuna from fishermen’s nets, left one activist in the hospital after a fisherman sunk a hook in the activist’s leg. Meanwhile, the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society has announced a ‘Blue Rage’ campaign that will target illegal fishing of bluefin tuna.

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