Dr. Lubchenco Ordered NOAA to Abandon U.S. Tuna Fishermen at ICCAT

by American Bluefin Tuna Association

The Acting Board of the American Bluefin Tuna Association has submitted an article to Saving Seafood in which they accuse National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Administrator Dr. Jane Lubchenco of supporting the agendas of environmental groups in effort to destroy the traditional tuna fishery, and of ignoring historical stock recovery commitments.

The board noted that before the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) meeting began, Senator John Kerry, along with Senator Olympia Snowe, Congressman Barney Frank and other elected officials, had urged Dr. Lubchenco to advocate for the highest Western total allowable catch (TAC) possible.

The board has asked Senator Kerry, in his capacity as Senior Senator from Massachusetts and Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, to call upon Dr. Lubchenco to explain why she ignored his “reasonable request” and instead chose an action that they say “can only be called punitive to American fishermen and advocated for a destructive ICCAT negotiation and agreement.”

They also ask why, upon arrival in Paris, Dr. Lubchenco chose to make her first meeting with environmental groups before she met with her own US delegation.

At the November meeting of ICCAT in Paris, Lubchenco ordered the US delegation and NOAA staff to abandon the current rebuilding plan for western bluefin tuna and to fight for reductions in the TAC for U.S. fishermen. In doing so, she ignored numerous members of Congress, an unprecedented coalition of commercial and recreational fishermen, and the proven success the current plan has achieved. Most important, she ignored the hard sacrifices fishermen in the western Atlantic have endured in order to rebuild the stock over the last two decades.

ICCAT is the international body charged with the management of bluefin tuna and other highly migratory species in the Atlantic, such as swordfish and sharks. The body meets once a year to review science and set catch levels. ICCAT met on November 17 through November 28. Heading into the meeting, the US bluefin industry was optimistic that after years of TAC cuts, that they would actually see an increase in Paris.

“The science was pretty clear in our opinion,” said Rich Ruais, Executive Director of the American Bluefin Tuna Association (ABTA).“There was no doubt in our mind that the recent stock assessment report from SCRS (Standing Committee on Research and Statistics, the scientific arm of ICCAT) spoke loudly in favor of a modest increase in the size of the TAC for the western Atlantic bluefin fishery,” he said.

Steve Weiner, a bluefin fisherman out of Perkins Cove, Maine, and a director for ABTA said, “It is pretty upsetting how U.S./NOAA leadership decided to change course 12 years into the successful rebuilding plan. I do not believe this policy change was warranted or fully vetted within the U.S advisory bodies.”
The current rebuilding plan went into effect in 1998. The U.S. and other nations specifically chose to base the plan on the so-called “two-line scenario,” which is a scientific strategy based on recruitment potential. The US and other nations subsequently affirmed this plan, and therefore the two-line scenario, at every ICCAT bluefin discussion ever since.

According to the 2010 SCRS report, under the chosen scenario, the western stock is successfully rebuilt. Technically, the western Atlantic biomass is rebuilt to 1.1 of the biomass necessary to produce Maximum Sustainable Yield (MSY), or the highest level of catch possible that is sustainable over time, of 2,585 metric tons (mt) with a 78 percet probability- a level far above the 50 percent level required by the plan. According to Paragraph 5 of the 2008 western bluefin agreement, “At such time as the SCRS determines the stock size has achieved the level that would produce MSY, TAC levels up to the level of MSY will be considered.”

This scientific recognition of improved stock status is confirmed anecdotally by observations of commercial and recreational fishermen up and down the east coast and off Canada who are seeing the fruits of this successful rebuilding plan. Reports of more fish of more year classes in more areas, despite the ongoing concern over baitfish levels off New England, have been widespread in recent years, and catch rates in many places this past season were as high as any fishermen alive can remember.

“And we are not talking about massive fleets of enormous purse seiners here, our fleet is essentially a hand gear, hook and line fleet,” said Ralph Pratt, a bluefin fisherman from Green Harbor, Massachusetts, and also an ABTA director. “I think some people in the U.S. read about the large fleets of purse seiners (large boats that use large nets to encircle fish) in the Mediterranean and think that is what our fleet is like. But we have an artisanal fishery—most of our boats are less than 40 feet long, and use inefficient gear like hand-thrown harpoons and rods and reels. If we can catch them, there are a lot of them!”

Adding to the frustration of U.S. fishermen is the fact that they have always led the way at ICCAT in an effort to conserve the stocks. This has meant one drastic TAC cut after the other, despite uncontrolled fishing in the eastern Atlantic and Mediterranean by African and European fleets up until 2008. US fishermen believe it is on their backs that the stocks have been rebuilt.

But, despite the improved science, the sacrifices of western Atlantic fishermen, and the ability to raise the TAC from the current level of 1,800 mt to as high as 2,585 mt, NOAA went into ICCAT with the hopes of achieving a cut in the TAC for its own fishery. As has become this administration’s modus operandi, once the scientific target has been realized, they simply switch the target. Displaying an arrogance that is all too familiar, Lubchenco decided that the agreements of prior U.S. delegations were insufficient and pushed hard for a cut. She once again chose loyalty to the powerful and wealthy environmental community rather than the fish and those who rely on them.

This well-known relationship between the head of NOAA, PEW Charitable Trusts and environmental groups was shown all too clearly early on in Paris: Lubchenco’s first meeting in the U.S. delegation room was held not with the U.S. delegation, but with a large number of representatives of the NGOs attending ICCAT. To many, this was a sign of where the administrator’s priorities lay. Besides being an obvious slap in the face to the US Commissioners and delegation, it shocked other nations attending ICCAT and showed all to whom our administrator was really accountable.

Initially, Lubchenco was pushing for a very large cut in the western bluefin fishery. Reliable reports put this cut at a staggering 450 mt from 1,800 mt down to 1,350 mt. This original proposal was based on new NMFS scientific analysis and biomass targets that were not authorized or reviewed by SCRS. If this unauthorized analysis had been accepted, the U.S. share of the western bluefin quota would have been under 700 mt, resulting in a gutting of the important bluefin fishery. There is little doubt that the Commerce Department approved this plan, leading some fisherman to question how Commerce Secretary Gary Locke, formerly governor of a state with a significant fishing industry, could let this happen.

“While we have seen some mistreatment by our government in the past, what they tried in Paris is at the top of the list,” exclaimed Ruais. “They basically chose to ignore the gains that have been made and went into this meeting hoping to put in place a new plan that would have caused economic hardship for thousands of people involved in this fishery. Every government at the ICCAT table is looking out for their fishermen and fishery- except ours!”

Despite strong efforts by the U.S./NOAA leadership in Paris, their extreme proposal was eventually weakened by other delegations. The Canadian government, which believed the SCRS science was clear and that an increase in TAC was more than warranted, was one of the main opponents of the U.S. proposal. While the Canadians eventually relaxed their stance in the face of U.S. pressure, they did not want to go anywhere below status quo, or 1,800 mt. But Lubchenco was not willing to accept anything but a reduction and the eventual proposal included a token cut of only 50 mt per year.

“It seems pretty obvious that our government wanted to appease the environmental groups and therefore pushed for a small cut, just to say they got a cut,” said Ruais.

In deciding to force a cut in the western Atlantic TAC, Lubchenco ignored strong advice from a bi-partisan group of senators and representatives, led by Snowe and Frank, that had asked her to push for a modest increase in the western TAC. In a letter dated November 18, the group stated that because of the long history of use of the two-line model and the “clear indication of stock growth shown in the most recent SCRS report” that “a modest increase in the TAC is warranted.”

And adding further insult to injury, the U.S./NOAA leadership in Paris, in an effort to convince Canada and Mexico to agree to a cut in the overall TAC, were willing to give away U.S. TAC. This was done by first adding Mexico to the nation-by-nation allocation table, thereby giving them a permanent allocation of western Atlantic TAC. Then, since Mexico does not even have a directed fishery, they included a clause in their proposal that would allow Mexico to give this TAC directly to Canada.

“In other words, the U.S. government was willing to take quota from U.S. fishermen and then funnel it through Mexico to Canada, in order to convince both nations to agree to the overall TAC proposal. In the end, the U.S. fishery is taking the biggest hit here, and all because of their own government,” said Ruais.

There is widespread anger along the coast in the wake of the U.S. actions taken at ICCAT. While most are angered at the cut, however small, it is the more basic feelings of betrayal that have most fishermen upset. “They threw us under the bus,” said one fisherman, no doubt echoing the feelings of countless others.

And while the TAC reduction was relatively small, combined with other factors it will cause issues of the U.S. fishery as soon as this coming season. Due to the TAC reductions seen in 2009 and 2010 (100 mt each year), and the reduction of the amount of underage that can be rolled over from year to year (which limits the amount of quota that can be carried forward from year to year), the US fishery will see a reduction from roughly 1,250 mt in 2010 to 950 mt in 2011. This new reduction chosen last month will only exacerbate the hardship for the fleet.

Given the extent of what happened in Paris, many tuna fisherman are now joining their colleagues in other fisheries around the country in calling for a change in leadership at NOAA.
“It has become increasingly clear that this agency has it out for U.S. fishermen and that it will bend the science whenever necessary to achieve its goals. We believe that if we are to have viable fisheries in the future, that the only solution is an immediate change in policy at NOAA,” said Weiner.

On November 22, Kerry said, “The health of the Massachusetts fishing industry is critical to our economy. As we work through this month’s meeting with the international fishery community, I will continue to work with the Obama Administration and our global partners to advocate for the highest Western total allowable catch possible.”

“We therefore ask Senator Kerry, once a friend of the bluefin industry, in his capacity as Senior Senator from Massachusetts and Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, to call upon Dr. Lubchenco to explain why she ignored his reasonable request and instead chose an action that can only be called punitive to American fishermen and advocated for a destructive ICCAT negotiation and agreement.” said Brian Higgins, bluefin and groundfish fisherman from Gloucester, Massachusetts.

ABTA would also like Congress to fully consider and recommend taking a formal reservation to the agreement. Any decisions made at ICCAT can be reviewed by Congress with Hearings before it is accepted by NOAA and Department of State, and they can choose to recommend U.S. disapproval by by urging the Administration to take a formal “reservation” to the agreement with the ICCAT Secretariat. “Our Congress needs to truly understand what happened in Paris before it allows this agreement to become permanent,” said Ruais.
“We would also like to know why, upon arrival in Paris, Dr. Lubchenco decided to make her first meeting with environmental groups before she even met with her own US delegation,” Ruais said.


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