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Tuna’s plight is a problem the world must solve

Too many boats and technology that is too good mean that nations must cooperate to preserve tuna and other fish stocks.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 6, 2009

A dockworker processes a yellowfin after weighing it at the port of General Santos City in the Philippines. The island nation is a major harvester of Pacific tuna.

Darren Whiteside/Reuters/FILE


Somewhere in the Pacific Ocean, a South Korean fishing vessel called the MFV Oryong 717 is hunting for fishing gear it left in the water to catch tuna. It won’t find it. Greenpeace has hauled it aboard their ship for disposal.

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It’s just one more skirmish in an accelerating battle over the fate of one of the last great lions of the open ocean – the bluefin tuna. Its succulent flesh is so popular in sushi that its very existence is threatened. A single bluefin – they typically grow to eight feet and 800 pounds – may sell for $100,000 in Japan.

Such price tags, and humanity’s hunger for protein, have put a bull’s-eye not just on bluefin, but on scores of other species as well. Nine of 23 tuna species worldwide are “fully fished” – meaning catches should not be increased. Four more are “overexploited” or “depleted,” according to the United Nations’ Food
and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

The tuna’s plight is shared by many marine species now being hunted by large, modern fishing fleets that use satellite tracking and sophisticated fishing gear, scientists say.

Despite the fact that regional fishery management organizations have imposed catch limits to try to preserve tuna and other species, global fisheries are in crisis, researchers say. Some 80 percent of commercial fish species are either fully exploited, overexploited, or collapsed, the FAO reports.

“Global fisheries really are in bad shape,” says Daniel Pauly, a marine scientist at the University of British Columbia. “Most of it is due, quite simply, to decades of overfishing.” His research tracks a steady slide in global catches.

Now there are growing signs that the nations of the world may be waking up in time to pull back from the brink – if they can find and sustain the political will to do so, experts say.

The Obama administration, for instance, last month unveiled the outline of a comprehensive “ecosystem-based” plan to restore health to US ocean waters, including coastal fisheries. Among several measures, US fisheries would be pushed toward science-based instead of politically based catch limits.

If the plan works, the United States could become a global model: It controls more ocean in its 200-mile exclusive economic zones (EEZ) than any other
nation. Despite its own hard-hit fisheries (Georges Bank cod, for example), the US still has some of the best fisheries regulations in the world, experts say
Europe is taking action, too. Last month the European Commission moved to ban all trade in the most endangered Atlantic bluefin for two years. A final decision won’t come until a March meeting in Doha, Qatar. Despite resistance from Spain and other major fishing powers, the new measure seems likely to be approved. If so, Atlantic bluefin tuna will enjoy the same banned-trade status as ivory.