Tuna Managers Focus on Recovery

by Laurie Schreiber

New England Fishery Management Council (NEFMC) member David Preble reported to the council in January that international negotiations for the management of collapsed stocks of Atlantic bluefin tuna were marked by “some of the most bizarre carrying-on that I’ve ever seen.”

“We had people running around in cars with giant bluefin tuna on top, people slapping signs on automobiles,” Preble said. “There was even an assault or two. It was a mess.”

Preble was a member of the United States delegation to the annual meeting of the 48-nation International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT), held in November, 2010, in Paris, France.

On one side of the discussion, he said, were environmental groups that wanted to see bluefin listed as an endangered species and wanted to stop fishing all together. On the other side, he said, were fishery managers who were attempting to weigh the merits of continued fishing at some level, given signs that some recovery is occurring. Complicating the entire matter, he said, was the lack of good data about fish biomass, spawning levels, and fish catch. The latter was further complicated, he said, by a history of illegal bluefin harvesting and falsified catch reports by fishermen in some nations in the Mediterranean.

Preble told the NEFMC that negotiation regarding bluefin tuna management was a top agenda item at the ICAAT meeting. According to information from the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) Web site Fishwatch, the U.S. bluefin tuna fishery is managed domestically by the Highly Migratory Species Management Division of NMFS and internationally by ICCAT. According to NMFS Office of Protected Resources, the bluefin is the largest of the tuna species. Maximum lengths can exceed 13 feet and harvested weights have reached nearly 2,000 pounds.

The bluefin is currently a candidate for listing as an endangered species under the federal Endangered Species Act. Atlantic bluefin tuna is the highest-valued Atlantic tuna species in the market, according to Fishwatch. Individual Atlantic bluefins have sold at auction in Japan for upward of $100,000.

In 2009, ICCAT concluded that Atlantic bluefin tuna stocks were declining dramatically, by 72 percent from peak fishing years in the 1970's in the Eastern Atlantic, and by 82 percent in the Western Atlantic. The United States is responsible for about 3 percent of the global Atlantic bluefin tuna catch.

In his report, Preble, a former fisherman from Rhode Island, described the decline of bluefin in his lifetime. “I am on the deck of a fishing boat south of Block Island, and I climb high into the rigging to once again bear witness to the beginning of the annual migration of giant Atlantic bluefin tuna into the waters of New England,” he wrote. “And I know that for the next several months the ‘horse mackerel,’ as the old-timers called them, will be found all along the coast, from Long Island to Canada, from the beaches and sounds and bays to the thirty fathom line. My Rhode Island waters will be filled with them, from Westerly into Narragansett Bay, all around Block Island, and eastward across Cox Ledge. The village of Galilee, on Point Judith, will call itself ‘The Tuna Capital of the World,’ though there will be other towns along the Atlantic coast who will also claim the title.”

“The memory begins more than a half-century ago and ends with the coming of west-coast tuna seiners in the sixties, ships sent to scoop up our juvenile bluefin tuna by the thousands of tons to feed the canneries. Then, in the seventies, a surge in the price paid for the game fish changed their target from the declining juvenile population to the adult breeders, and added hundreds of new harpooners and hook fishermen. A trained biologist couldn’t have devised a more effective way to destroy a resource. Soon the bluefin tuna were mostly gone from the nearshore waters of my youth and of the generations before me, their numbers collapsing across the waters of New England.”

According to Fishwatch, until the 1950s, there was little commercial market for bluefin. “Bluefin stocks remained relatively stable until the 1970s when their value soared as sushi, sashimi, and fresh steaks in international markets, particularly in Japan, leading to a dramatic increase in fishing effort by the U.S. and Japanese long line fleet in the Gulf of Mexico. Spawning stock biomass steadily declined from the early 1970s to 1992; since then it has fluctuated between 18 and 27 percent of the 1975 level.”

Preble told the NEFMC that fishery managers have been operating on the assumption that the collapsed stock has permanently lost its ability to recover. But there appears to be hope, he said. Bluefin management was complicated by illegal fishing and falsified catch reports. At the same time, he said, the 2010 assessment of bluefin tuna stocks showed “a new growth curve” as a result of lower fishing rates, more spawning tuna, and a strong year-class in 2003. The 2003 year-class is just beginning to enter the spawning stock now. There is no clear indication yet of the strength of subsequent year-classes, Preble added.

In the end, he said, ICCAT stood by an emergency action it took in 2009, which cut the total allowable catch by half and tightened compliance and enforcement measures. The catch was further reduced by 4 percent in the Mediterranean and 3 percent in the western Atlantic. Preble said that ICCAT also adopted binding minimum standards, proposed by the U.S., for observer programs. “Those programs will improve data collection and fishery monitoring in the future,” he said. “That’s an important achievement.”

The status of North Atlantic swordfish was also a hot topic on the ICCAT agenda, Preble said. The swordfish fishery is in good shape, but United States fishermen have not been harvesting their entire share of the catch quota. U.S. fishermen need to stay in the game in order to maintain the nation’s quota, Preble said.

“We had a problem in that U.S. swordfishermen have not been catching their quota,” he said. “That, unfortunately, under rules of the game, opens us up to quota theft. This year we defended our quota against serious efforts to steal it. We’ll have more problems in the future. For the moment, our quota is intact for one more year. But we need to move U.S. fishermen into that fishery; we need to take more of that quota.”

In a scenario that he called “funny math,” Preble said that other nations have been overfishing their own catch limits, and then trying to convert the overage into permanent quotas – since their overage, combined with the U.S. underage, did not exceed the total catch limit. “We managed to fend that off,” Preble said. The total allowable catch for 2010 was 13,700 tons. The U.S. share is 3,900 mt.

The U.S. managed to negotiate a one-year rollover of its share, he said, but will have to return to ICCAT’s 2011 meeting to renegotiate.


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