NEW YORK, 11 JANUARY 2011
Dear EarthTalk: Are Atlantic bluefin tuna really about to go extinct?
What are the contributing factors and what is being done to try to head
off this tragedy?
Edward Jeffries, Norwalk, CT
According to many marine biologists, Atlantic bluefin tuna, one of
three closely related bluefin tuna species, are in danger of going extinct
within a decade if the governments of the world cant come together to ban
catching and/or selling the lucrative species. The non-profit
International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), which maintains
an international "Red List" of threatened species, considers the Atlantic
bluefin "Critically Endangered" given that its population numbers have
declined by upwards of 80 percent since the 1970s. Even recently
instituted stricter restrictions on allowable catch levels may be too
little too late for the huge migratory fish.
The trouble began in the 1960s when fishing boats using purse seines
and long lines to pull in fish for the canned tuna market harvested huge
numbers of juvenile Atlantic bluefin. This highly efficient method of
fishing decimated generations of Atlantic bluefin, constraining their
reproductive capacity accordingly.
Today catch limits for Atlantic bluefin even more in demand worldwide
for sushi are implemented and enforced by the International Commission
for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT), a multinational group of
fisheries regulators charged with maintaining sustainable levels of tuna
throughout the Atlantic and neighboring waters. In 2007, ICCAT set the
international annual catch limit for Atlantic bluefin at 30,000 tons;
double what the commissions own scientists recommended. More recently,
ICCATs scientists recommended lowering the limit to 7,500 tons; ICCAT
compromised with fishing interests and settled on a 13,500 ton limit. But
despite these rules, analysts estimate that the fishing industry is
actually still harvesting around 60,000 tons of Atlantic bluefin annually.
ICCAT says that if stocks have not rebounded by 2022 it would consider
closing down some tuna fishing areas.
With ICCATs limits having little effect on the animals decline,
environmentalists took their case to the United Nations Convention on
International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) in hopes of getting an
international ban on the harvesting and sale of Atlantic bluefin. But in
March 2010, 68 nations voted down the proposal; 20 countries, including
the U.S., voted for it, while 30 others abstained. The leading opponent of
the ban, Japan which consumes three-quarters of all bluefin tuna caught
around the world argued that ICCAT was the proper regulatory body to
sustain Atlantic bluefin population numbers.
As for what concerned individuals can do, the Monterey Bay Aquariums
Seafood Watch program recommends avoiding bluefin tuna sometimes called
hon maguro or toro (tuna belly) at the supermarket and at restaurants
altogether. And that would not only be a good environmental move but good
for your health, too: The non-profit Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), a
leading environmental group, recently issued a health advisory
recommending that people avoid eating Atlantic bluefin due to elevated
levels of neurotoxins including mercury and PCBs that can be found in the
fishs tissue. It seems the only way we can continue to live with bluefin
tuna and so many other at-risk marine wildlife species is to live without
them on our dinner plates.
CONTACTS: IUCN, www.iucn.org; ICCAT,
www.iccat.int; CITES, www.cites.org; Seafood Watch, www.montereybayaquarium.org/cr/seafoodwatch.aspx;
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