International Commission Protects Some Sharks, But Not Tuna

On Saturday the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) concluded ten days of meetings in Paris, France where negotiators from countries around the world attempted to agree on measures for conserving some of the ocean’s largest and most endangered fish.  The commission agreed on several new rules to protect populations of oceanic whitetip sharks, hammerhead sharks, and mako sharks, but failed to come up with a concrete strategy for preserving Atlantic bluefin tuna. 

The Atlantic bluefin tuna is perhaps the most endangered large fish species in the world.  Over-fishing and other human activities have reduced the number of bluefin tuna in the Atlantic ocean by about 97%, and experts warn the species will soon disappear if conservation measures are not quickly taken.  However the value of tuna on the international market means a very powerful fishing industry with allies in many national governments is lobbying hard to prevent strict limits being on tuna catches.  Lobbyists from Japan, where the majority of tuna on the international market is sold, are particularly opposed to setting quota restrictions. 

Earlier this year, Japan helped defeat a proposal to protect the bluefin tuna internationally under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species.  After that responsibility for managing tuna populations fell on the ICCAT, which is supposed to regulate fishing of tunas and other large, endangered fish species in the oceans. 

Aside from certain sharks and rays, the bluefin tuna is one of the world’s largest fish, occasionally reaching a length of up to three meters (around eleven feet) long.  They are also extremely wide-ranging, with some individuals crossing back and forth across the Atlantic Ocean.  Unlike most fish species they are warm-blooded—meaning that, like birds and mammals, bluefin tuna regulate their own internal body temperature.  Many fish species consider bluefin tuna to be among the most evolutionarily advanced of all fish.

There are only two places where bluefin tuna are known to breed: the Mediterranean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico.  Both these breeding grounds are under considerable pressure due to human activities, and tuna are threatened by over-fishing throughout their habitat.  Environmental groups like Greenpeace are advocating immediate action to save bluefin and other tuna species, including designation of 40% of the Mediterranean Sea as a permanent marine reserve where fish populations will be able to recover from over-exploitation. 

Despite the need for better protections for bluefin tuna, the ICCAT set tuna catch quotas this month which environmental groups say will be too high to prevent the decline of the species.  Right now the fishing industry is allowed to harvest 12,900 metric tons of tuna from fisheries in the eastern part of the fish’s range, and 1,750 metric tons in the western Atlantic.  Conservationists argue these quotas are nowhere near low enough to ensure a future for the species.  “Atlantic bluefin tuna once again were denied the protection they desperately need,” said Dr. Susan Lieberman of the Pew Environment Group.  “ICCAT member governments had more than enough information to act decisively. They failed to do so.” 

Now the fate of bluefin tuna may rest in the hands of individual governments.  In the United States the Center for Biological Diversity is asking the National Marine Fisheries Service to protect bluefin tuna under the Endangered Species Act.  This could help restore the tuna population which breeds in the Gulf of Mexico, and which is suffering from both overfishing and the effects of the BP oil spill.  Meanwhile in Europe, environmental groups are pressuring countries that fish in the Mediterranean to abandon the most destructive fishing practices. 

If the United States decides to list bluefin tuna as an endangered species with all the protection that entails, it could send a strong signal to other countries that the time has come to protect this iconic fish. 

Photo credit: Jose Antonio Gil Martinez

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