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Going Green: There’s a catch

Disparity in bluefin tuna fisheries makes for tough purchasing decisions

Overfished? American fishermen say there’s plenty of bluefin tuna. - Photo by Marco Care, courtesy of Marine Photobank
By James Wright
June 05, 2012

A little more than two years ago, the Commission for the International Trade in Endangered Species rejected a global trade ban for bluefin tuna, much to the chagrin of conservationists who argued that the species was running out of time.

This summer, as another commercial harvest begins on both sides of the Atlantic, bluefin tuna remains at the center of controversy — and on menus, particularly in Japan, where an estimated 80 percent of the global supply is sold. But to U.S. fishermen, the public debate about the species’ pending doom is confounding. Contending that their fishery is sustainably fished and well managed, they say recent scientific data supports what they’ve been saying all along: Bluefin tuna are not on the brink. 

So, despite mass media reports of a devastated biomass and environmental activists urging consumers to stop eating the species, there’s a thriving artisanal fishery just off the coast of the United States and Canada. What’s a seafood buyer to do with all this conflicting information? 

It partly depends on what you’re reading, because some published stock reports for Atlantic (Thunnus thynnus), Pacific (T. orientalis) and southern (T. maccoyii) bluefin tuna are bleak. The Atlantic and southern species are listed on the World Conservation Union Red List of Threatened Species. Due to critical bycatch concerns, overfishing from the industrial purse seining fleet, the preponderance of illegal, unreported and unregulated  catches of Atlantic bluefin and poor management, the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s influential Seafood Watch program advises consumers to avoid bluefin tuna altogether.

However, U.S. scientists are learning new things about bluefin tuna. Tagging and electronic monitoring programs show that bluefin tuna of many sizes are mixing throughout the Atlantic and, most importantly, that the species may have many more spawning areas than previously believed. 

“The scientific information that is available suggests that there are good signs for bluefin tuna in the western Atlantic and that there’s a chance for much faster rebuilding than we’ve realized,” says Molly Lutcavage, Ph.D., director and research professor at the Large Pelagics Research Center in Gloucester, Mass., which is affiliated with the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. “I’m optimistic. We haven’t been overfishing.” 

Lutcavage acknowledges that there has been “vast” overfishing and illegal fishing in the eastern Atlantic and Mediterranean Sea, where political pressure has kept fishing quotas above levels recommended by scientists at the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT). Even so, there is good news to be found there as well. “My perception of the latest and best understanding of the eastern Atlantic and Mediterranean is that we are, for the first time in decades, closer to the scientific-removal levels than ever before,” says Lutcavage. 

By any measure, the U.S.-Canada bluefin tuna fishery is a fraction of the size of the eastern Atlantic-Mediterranean fishery, where there’s also widespread ranching of juvenile fish to fatten them up for the export market. Industrial purse seining activity — also not permitted in the western Atlantic — kicked off in those waters on May 15. 

What U.S. and Canadian fishermen are seeing makes it impossible to convince them they’re harvesting a fish that should be left alone. 

“This year’s stock assessment is going to lead to some important discussions. What we’ve learned about the resource in the last 10 years is more than we learned in the previous 100,” adds Rich Ruais, executive director of the American Bluefin Tuna Association (ABTA).

The U.S. bluefin tuna fleet consists of 4,000-plus boats from Maine to Texas, says Ruais. Of the 12,900-metric-ton global Atlantic bluefin quota, American fishermen are allowed 800 metric tons when fishing starts June 1. License holders include full-time commercial fishermen and recreational fishermen. 

“The word artisanal is very important,” says Ruais. “We’re asking NOAA to change the name of the fisheries on their website because we meet both the [United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization] and ICCAT definitions of artisanal fisheries: day-boats, mom-and-pops and sole-proprietor operations.” 

Email Senior Editor James Wright at jwright@divcom.com

June 2012 - SeaFood Business 

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