The US government announced Wednesday that it would support a proposed ban on international commercial trade in Atlantic bluefin tuna, whose succulent flesh has made it a delicacy worldwide, commanding tens of thousands of dollars per fish – and putting it at threat of extinction.
By supporting a trade ban without conditions, the United States takes a leadership role alongside tiny Monaco at a major international conference later this month. It is a crucial step that could conceivably result in giving Atlantic bluefin tuna the status of elephant ivory, whose international trade is also banned.
“In light of the serious compliance problems that have plagued the eastern Atlantic and Mediterranean fishery and the fact that the 2010 quota level adopted by ICCAT [the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas] is not as low as we believe is needed, the United States continues to have serious concerns about the long-term viability of either the fish or the fishery,” Tom Strickland, assistant secretary of the interior for fish and wildlife and parks said in a statement.
The move was swiftly applauded by environmental groups.
“This is a huge boost to international efforts to save this species from extinction and retain a vital commercial fishery,” said Mark Stevens, senior program officer for Fisheries Conservation for the World Wildlife Fund. “All countries should now back this ban and realize that it makes both conservation and commercial sense.”
In the Atlantic Ocean, bluefin tuna are managed as two separate fish stocks. One is the Eastern Atlantic and Mediterranean stock; the other is the Western Atlantic stock. The former has been in steep decline for a decade, the Interior Department said.
While Western Atlantic bluefin spawning stocks have dropped by 82 percent from 1970 to 2007, those stocks have stabilized at “a very low” population level, the Interior Department reported.
Meanwhile, the Eastern Atlantic and Mediterranean stocks have continued to plummet 72 percent, with most of that drop occurring in the past decade. In 2007, just 78,724 metric tons of spawning biomass remained in the Eastern Atlantic from a peak of more than 305,000 tons in the mid-1950s, the department said.
“This is an important and necessary move because the organizations charged with protecting the bluefin tuna have not done their jobs,” says Andrew Rosenberg, a senior scientist with Conservation International and an adviser to President Obama’s Ocean task force. “It’s just unacceptable after years and years of stock decline for there not to be concerted international action to protect them.”
The proposed ban will have little impact on US consumers although some US businesses may be affected, he says. If the ban is approved, “it won’t mean it will be impossible to eat bluefin tuna ever again,” Dr. Rosenberg says. “It just means we’ll be recovering a valuable resource.”
But alluding to impacts on US tuna fishermen, Mr. Strickland applauded them for doing “a good job” of obeying quotas in recent years.
“We understand the frustration of our US fishermen who have followed the scientific recommendations and regulatory provisions,” he said, “while their counterparts in the eastern Atlantic and Mediterranean have often overfished and engaged in ineffective management.”
The US is now aligned with Monaco, which in October proposed listing the Atlantic bluefin at the 15th Conference of the Parties to the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), which will meet March 13 through 25 in Doha, Qatar. The proposal is also backed by major Mediterranean fishing nations such as France and Italy, as well as the European Commission and Parliament. That goal of CITES is to ensure that international trade in wild animals and plants does not threaten their survival in the wild.
Editor's Note: The original photo may have shown the wrong species of tuna.