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Movements of an individual Atlantic bluefin tuna (03-251) showing a migration between the foraging grounds in the North Atlantic and the breeding grounds in the Gulf of Mexico. Color denotes the month of each position. The bluefin tuna was released off North Carolina on 16 January 2004 (arrow, 268 cm CFL). The tag detached from the fish on 27 August 2004 (green triangle). Block et. al., 2004 Nature (434) pp. 1121-1127
For those in and around the Atlantic Bluefin Tuna (Thunnus thynnus) fishery, the information contained in the long-awaited and recently-released electronic tagging and population report, by Dr. Barbara Block and her colleagues, was frankly old news. The report, an unprecedented study of Atlantic bluefin tuna migrations, represents 10 long years of work that confirms, “scientifically,” something that our fishermen have been saying for years: some western Atlantic bluefin tuna do migrate across the international stock boundary line into the European and Mediterranean’s eastern Atlantic fishery, where those fishermen don’t seem to be held nearly as responsible for conservation as the fishermen in the U.S. are.

If you know the fishery, then you know that Atlantic bluefin tuna is the subject of a global debate. That debate spans the gambit, from international fishing privileges to fisheries conservation. Fueling the tuna debate is the fact that last summer our western Atlantic bluefin tuna fishery basically took a nose dive. The plunge, according to ICCAT (International Commission for Conservation of Atlantic Tunas) data, brought the western stock population to an all-time low — 80 percent fewer Atlantic bluefin tuna swimming in the western part of the Atlantic ocean then there were in the 1970’s. The stock depletion raises an important question: if commercial fishermen and rec fishermen have all been cut back, why is the stock still diminishing? Block’s report holds much of the answer. When the western Atlantic bluefin migrate through the eastern Atlantic fishery, most of them don’t come back.

At the center of the tuna debate is the arbitrarily-drawn line, at the 45th meridian (down the middle of the Atlantic ocean), that the Europeans and Mediterraneans swore for years was the international stock boundary, which separated our tuna stock from theirs, with the U.S. holding permits for only about three percent of the total allowable take. In the 1960’s and 70’s, conventional tag returns placed by recreational and commercial fishermen showed what has become known as “bluefin highways” stretching across the Atlantic between the Bahamas and Norway, and from Long Island, N.Y. and the Bay of Fundy across to France and Spain. But, the information wasn’t “scientific” enough for ICCAT’s European members. Many in the U.S. were angered by what they saw as cheap stalling tactics. Block’s report will officially put an end to this argument.

And lastly, the overwhelming sentiment that permeates the tuna debate has been an ongoing disillusionment in the effectiveness of ICCAT to enforce the international laws that were designed to protect both the eastern and western Atlantic bluefin fishery.

If there is controversy that will come out of Block’s report, it won’t be in the data. Controversery will come from the way that different groups manipulate the data to strengthen their own talking points. Conservation groups will be focused on the aspect of the report that shows, without a doubt, that both known spawning grounds, the Gulf of Mexico and the Mediterranean Sea, are directly linked to the endangered western Atlantic fishery. Using that information, they will call for tougher fishing restrictions to protect the Atlantic bluefin.

Block herself is rallying conservation efforts by calling for the complete closure of the Gulf of Mexico. But, as Richard Ruais, of the East Coast Tuna Association, points out, the Gulf is already closed to directed bluefin fishing, and additional circle hook requirements have reduced the bluefin by-catch in the Gulf to only about 260 fish per year. “Meanwhile, thousands of tons of bluefin from the western Atlantic fishery are being captured in the eastern Atlantic each year, and this is where the focus needs to be,” Ruais said. “The western recreational and commercial fisheries do not need any more tweaking. It’s time to tackle the giant leak.”

Movements of one individual Atlantic bluefin tuna (603) for 4.5 years that was tagged in the western Atlantic in 1999 and demonstrated site fidelity to a known spawning area in the Mediterranean Sea (2001-2003). Each panel shows a year of the fishs track; color denotes month of each position. Start and end points for each year are denoted by a square and cross-hatched circle, respectively. a, The bluefin tuna was released off North Carolina on 17 January 1999 (arrow, 191 cm CFL) and displayed a year of western residency. b, 2000, Trans-Atlantic movement to the eastern Atlantic. c-e, 2001-2003, Three consecutive years of movements from the eastern Atlantic into the Mediterranean Sea, to the vicinity of the Balearic Islands, during the breeding season. The fish was recaptured on 2 July 2003 (yellow triangle). Block et. al., 2004 Nature (434) pp. 1121-1127
No one on Capitol Hill will comment on the suggestion that many of our international fishery policies are simply part of a huge political chess game, one in which fishing rights are often given in exchange for military fly-over-privileges, or violations in fishing treaties are ignored in exchange for support in some six-nation argument. But the folks out in Gloucester have a different take on the big picture. Mark Godfried has been involved with the fishing industry for longer than most of us have been alive. He’s traveled the world working in tuna-related businesses and is currently a bluefin buyer and consigner for FWF Inc., with an office and plant in Gloucester, Mass.

“As with many things that have happened with our government, there is a tendency to trade off American economic interests for American State Department interests,” Godfried said. “For example, we’ve allowed the Spanish access to waters in return for air force bases. Our U.S. fishery commissioners, the National Marine Fishery Services, go into ICCAT and basically allow by-catch and allocate quotas to other parts of the world, that just don’t make sense, relative to the needs of the American fishermen. The Mediterranean now has a quota of somewhere around 38,000 metric tons, and they take anywhere from up to 50 - 52 thousand. We never know what trade-off our government will do that will negatively affect the American working man.”

Across the board, our politicians tell us that Block’s report will empower the U.S. delegation to ICCAT. Senator Susan Collins looks forward to a stronger U.S. presence. “As more scientific data from Dr. Block and other researchers becomes available, it is clear that there is mixing between Eastern and Western Atlantic tuna stocks,” Collins said. “Tagging data will only strengthen the hand of U.S. negotiators before ICCAT, as they press for more equitable treatment for our fishermen.”

Senator Olympia Snowe’s office called the results of Block’s study “no surprise.” Snowe was instrumental in seeking the funding so that the tagging survey could be done. “It further proves that we need to get rid of the arbitrary lines in the middle of the ocean and that eastern over-fishing has a direct impact on western rebuilding. We’ve been pushing the U.S. delegation to fight harder at ICCAT to try to ratify that, and to get eastern fishing under control and under a rebuilding time frame or rebuilding plan, because the eastern stock/western stock is really a myth. The U.S. fishermen don’t need to take all the burden on this.”

Block’s Report — The Ultimate Tool
Bill Hogarth is the assistant administrator to the National Marine Fisheries Service and heads up the U.S. ICCAT delegation. Much of the funding for Block’s research over the last eight years came from his office. Hogarth sees Block’s report as the ultimate tool that was needed to push ICCAT into negotiations. “The U.S. delegation to ICCAT needed the science to be able to back up a resolution,” an office spokesperson told the Fishermen’s Voice.

Block’s report, co-authored by Steven L. H. Teo, Andreas Walli, Andre Boustany, Michael J. W. Stokesbury, Charles J. Farwell, Kevin C. Weng, Heidi Dewar and Thomas D. Williams, will be used by the U.S. delegation to ICCAT to lobby for new fishing policy. Block, a professor at Stanford University, and other scientists are urging management measures that will recognize the fact that the Atlantic bluefin tuna fishery is a complex spatial and temporal mixing of the two populations in both the west and east Atlantic.

Block is calling on ICCAT to establish a new central Atlantic management zone with an extremely low quota. “That way we can reduce the mortality of giant western tuna that regularly forage there,” Block said. “We cannot conserve the western Atlantic population without protecting these fish in the central Atlantic.”

Ruais agrees, and points to the fisheries of the Mediterranean, Croatia, Spain, Italy, Turkey, Cyprus, Morocco, Tunisia, Malta and Libya. “Unregulated and catching whatever they can,” Ruais said. “That’s hurting us in two ways. First, they’re catching an unprecedented amount of the total quota. And second, they’re putting illegal quantities of tuna into farms. Now that these fisheries know how to prepare the fish properly for the Japanese market, they have a year-round farmed supply. That’s a major disadvantage for U.S. fishermen.”

Currently, ICCAT has 34 member countries. Its regulations are binding, but it is up to the member countries to enforce compliance, which, according to many within the U.S. fishery, is a big part of the problem. If a member does not comply, ICCAT may enact quota reductions, or, as a last resort, authorize trade-restrictive measures, a tool they seem reluctant to use.

The next step in the Atlantic bluefin process is closed-door negotiations and lobbying efforts. The U.S. ICCAT delegation won’t have an easy time of it, but at least now they’ll be armed with Block’s report. Tuna fishermen up and down the Atlantic coast will be keeping their eye on the process, but none of them are naïve enough to believe that the tides will change for their fishery quickly enough to help them out of their situations. The tuna fishermen who are devoting their time to this political process are doing it for the long term, for the future of the fishery. One fisherman joked that if the tuna was oil, we’d have troops in the Mediterranean right now. “This is just the fishing industry,” he said. “They won’t even believe us unless there’s 10 or 11 years of tagging data and a slew of scientists to back us up.”