The United States made a bold attempt last week to ensure the future of eastern Atlantic and Mediterranean bluefin tuna. The United States fought hard for tougher conservation measures to end overfishing of this stock during a meeting of the international commission that manages bluefin and other tuna and tuna-like species. The 2006 stock assessment for eastern Atlantic and Mediterranean bluefin tuna included grim news that the stock is being severely over-harvested and will collapse if strong conservation measures were not adopted and implemented without delay.
"The United States wants to manage commercial tuna fishing in an environmentally sound way," said Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez. "We want to limit harvests to sustainable levels to ensure the future of tuna stocks and the fishermen who depend on them. We will continue to work with the world's fishing community towards these goals."
The United States strongly supported reducing annual eastern bluefin tuna catches to 15,000 metric tons. For the last four years, the annual catch for the eastern fishery was capped at 32,000 metric tons; however, due to wide-spread non-compliance, scientists estimate the actual catch has been much higher - 50,000 metric tons per year or more. The United States also supported expanding the closed season in the Mediterranean to the peak spawning month of June for all bluefin tuna fleets, which catch bluefin using different types of fishing gear. These proposals are consistent with scientific advice.
Contrary to scientific advice, the European Commission (EC) put forward a proposal to set a quota for 2007 of 29,500 metric tons with a gradual reduction each year so that the quota would reach 25,500 metric tons by 2010. The EC measure only closed the fishery in June for the longline gear fleet, even though the purse seine gear fleet catches between 70 and 80 percent of all bluefin tuna in the Mediterranean. The EC proposal also eliminated requirements for countries to pay back over-harvests through future quota reductions, while under-harvests were allowed to be carried over to future years.
Although the EC proposal included improvements to monitoring and control of the fishery, the quota reductions are likely too little, too late even if they can be perfectly implemented. In a bid to block the proposal, the United States requested a roll call vote for the first time in ICCAT history. Unfortunately, eastern bluefin tuna harvesting nations voted 10-8 in favor of the EC proposal despite the fact that it will continue the severe overexploitation of eastern Atlantic and Mediterranean bluefin tuna.
"I am extremely disappointed with the inability of nations which harvest eastern bluefin tuna to adopt a meaningful stock recovery plan," said Dr. Bill Hogarth, director of NOAA Fisheries Service and U.S. government commissioner to ICCAT. "Of particular concern is the blatant disregard of strong scientific advice on the need to substantially reduce catches."
In contrast, the United States successfully pushed for the adoption of a proposal to lower the annual catch of western Atlantic bluefin tuna from 2,700 metric tons to 2,100 metric tons, in line with scientific advice to stop overfishing. Importantly, the United States maintained its current percentage share of quota. Despite the strong actions taken in the West, however, there is substantial concern that the flawed agreement for the eastern Atlantic bluefin tuna stock could jeopardize the effectiveness of ICCAT's western Atlantic rebuilding program, due to mixing between the two stocks.
"We have always followed scientific advice for managing the western stock of bluefin tuna, and this year was no different," Hogarth said. "The United States has done the right thing to protect this magnificent fish for the future, unlike our counterparts fishing for eastern bluefin."