'Tuna summit' aims to save species worldwide

Spain Protecting Tuna
Recently caught tunas are prepared in San Sebastian, Spain, for deliver to Barcelona.Alvaro Barrientos / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

It's no secret that overfishing has driven many tuna species including the iconic blue fin to the brink of extinction.

But there is plenty of disagreement over what should be done about it. The European Commission thinks reducing fleets is the answer while environmentalists say tougher quotas would do the trick. The industry wants more attention paid to reducing bycatch, the unwanted fish, sharks, turtles and other marine life caught in nets, along with young tuna.

The debate is playing out at a meeting here this week of five regional fisheries management organizations which are tasked primarily with protecting tuna populations worldwide. The groups representing 80 countries are meeting for the first time in two years to assess stocks of the fish and determine what more can be done to save the 23 tuna populations, nine of which are under threat.

Stocks of the bluefin are now considered depleted in the Atlantic, the Mediterranean and in great parts of the Pacific. Skipjack, bigeye and the yellow fin tuna, meanwhile, are faring better but face risk from overfishing.

"Bluefin tuna is just the poster child for overfishing worldwide," said Mike Sutton, who runs the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California and is involved in bluefin research.

"The bottom line is that these fishing commissions have presided over the demise of the species under their authority," he continued. "Every single graph looks the same, (showing) precipitous decline. That is why we have a tuna summit."

Quota controversy
Sutton and other environmentalists argue that part of the problem with these commissions is that they often ignore their own science and routinely sanction unsustainable quotas.

Scientists, for example, recommended catch quotas of 15,000 tons a year for Mediterranean bluefin tuna. But the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas in November agreed to allow a quota of 22,000 tons per year and allow fishing during critical spawning months.

The Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission, meanwhile, agreed in December to cut catches of bigeye tuna by 10 percent in each of the next three years. That was far short of the immediate 30 percent cut demanded by environmentalists and some scientists.

Andrew Wright, whose Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission supplies nearly half of the world's 4.5 million ton annual catch of tuna, accepts the criticism that scientific advice is sometimes not strictly adhered to. But he argues that firm assessments on capacity, vessel numbers, and fish stocks are totally reliant on member nations supplying data, which he says is often inconsistent.

"We're at a very delicate stage in development," he said on the sidelines of the meeting. "Tuna fishing is obviously not an infinite resource and it needs to be managed properly and scientifically. But we're not getting the full picture."

Some member states like Australia said the consensus model that is required to set policy at the commissions often makes it difficult to take tough action.

"Some members are simply not playing by the rules," said Glenn Hurry, head of the Australian Fisheries Management Authority. "There are too many boats fishing for too few fish and now developing nations want a part of it," he said. "But things are starting to turn around. We're a long way from perfect but the talks are heading in the right direction."

Some regional commissions, rather than set quotas, use alternative means such as closing down fishing in some areas or in general for certain periods of time, said Randi Parks Thomas of the National Fisheries Institute, an industry group based in McLean, Va.

"Having said that, however, I believe it would be a very good thing to know the total allowable catch levels that would sustain the stocks as a basis for establishing management measures," he said.

Focus on fleet sizes?
The European Commission, which has criticized the fishing organizations for failing to enforce policy and not always enacting stringent conservation measures, said the answer lies not so much in quotas as reducing the size of fishing fleets worldwide.

It has called for drastic cuts in the EU's 90,000-strong fishing fleet and is pushing for a global freeze on tuna fishing capacity at the meeting in San Sebastian. But prospects for agreement are slim because of opposition from developing countries, said Pierre Amilhat of the EU's marine affairs and fisheries directorate.

"Developing countries say, basically, 'you developed countries have created this situation. It is up to you to sort it out. We have legitimate aspirations to develop our fisheries,'" he said.

The EU is also pushing for progress on existing proposals to create a global registry of tuna boats so they can be monitored, and a common list — shared by all five regional commissions — of ships found to engage in illegal, unreported or unregulated fishing.

The EU commission has received support from Australia as well as some sectors of the fishing industry in Europe.

Julio Moron, whose Spanish association represents eight companies with 34 vessels which catch some 250,000 tons a year, agreed fleets have to be reduced. "We have reached a ceiling of sustainability, all the stocks are suffering but vessel capacity is still growing," he added.

But activists said that many developing countries including Pacific island nations, Papua New Guinea as well as Brazil are opposed to caps on fleet sizes — contending that violates their right to fish tuna in their coastal waters.

Others industry voices are arguing that saving tuna can be done by reducing bycatch. The International Seafood Sustainability Foundation, a coalition of seafood processing companies, environmentalists and scientists, is expected to call for a global study of bycatch and measures to reduce it at the meeting. They said bycatch often includes juvenile tuna which should not be caught and makes it hard for stocks to replenish themselves.

"Scientists are telling us there needs to be a worldwide effort to collect more data on bycatch," said Susan Jackson, the foundation's president. "That information can help improve fishing methods and gear to reduce or even eliminate the amount of unintended catch. If everyone shares that goal there's enormous value in working together to reach it."