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July 20, 2009

CITES listings and bluefin tuna

There are three levels of protection afforded by CITES, according to the appendix on which the species is listed.

If you have been following the gross mismanagement and potential demise of Atlantic bluefin tuna populations you have undoubtedly heard reference to the international environmental treaty known as CITES, or the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. 

A chilling shockwave was felt around the world last fall when managers at the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) again failed to adopt a scientifically endorsed rebuilding plan for eastern Atlantic bluefin tuna.  This action - or inaction - may set the stage for a bluefin tuna proposal to be submitted for consideration at the CITES meeting in 2010.  If bluefin are listed on CITES, would fishermen throughout the Atlantic and Mediterranean then be locked in "CITES jail," prohibited from hooking, let alone selling, any bluefin tuna?  In fact, would a CITES listing have any direct negative repercussions for recreational fishermen?

What is CITES?
CITES was conceived in 1975 and is administered by the United Nations.  Its central mission is to ensure that international trade does not threaten the survival of wild plants and animals.  CITES is among the most widespread conservation agreements, with 175 nations party to the convention (compared to ICCAT's 48). 

There are three levels of protection afforded by CITES, according to the appendix on which the species is listed.  Appendix I provides the most protection and is reserved for species threatened with extinction.  International trade of Appendix I species is prohibited except in exceptional circumstances, such as for scientific research.  No international commercial trade whatsoever is permitted.  The shortnose sturgeon and coelacanth are examples of marine fishes listed on Appendix I.

Appendix II includes species that may not be threatened with extinction, but in which unmonitored trade could threaten the species' future survival.  Appendix II species may be traded, but accompanying export documentation is required.  Before a permit can be issued to export an Appendix II species, the issuing authority must be able to determine that the specimens were legally acquired and that the export will not be detrimental to the survival of the species.  Examples of Appendix II listed fishes include whale sharks and basking sharks. 

Appendix III includes species that are protected in a country that has asked other CITES Parties for assistance in controlling the international trade.  Unlike for Appendix II, issuance of an Appendix III document does not require a determination that the export will not be detrimental to the survival of the species. 

The CITES listing process
Amendments to the CITES appendices are considered at meetings of the Conference of the Parties to CITES that takes place every 2-3 years.  Proposals to add or remove species must be submitted by nations that are Parties to CITES.  Consequently, NGOs (non-governmental organizations) may not submit CITES proposals. A two-thirds majority is required for passage of an amendment to Appendix I or Appendix II.  A Party may unilaterally list a species on Appendix III.  Even in the event of a listing, dissenting nations have the right to file a reservation to a listing, exempting them from the controls dictated by CITES.

In some cases, export quotas are established for species listed on Appendix I or Appendix II.  These quotas may be adopted by all nations at CITES or unilaterally by individual parties.

What does CITES mean for recreational fishermen?
The short answer is - very little.  Most importantly, if bluefin tuna are listed on CITES, either on Appendix I or Appendix II, there will be zero new restrictions on recreational fishing in the United Sates since recreational caught fish do not enter international trade.  A CITES listing means only good things for recreational fishermen because reduced catch will mean more fish migrating to coastal waters where recreational fishermen can catch them.

The epicenter of bluefin tuna overfishing - the Mediterranean Sea - would be reined in by an Appendix I listing.  For some age classes, more than half of bluefin in the mid-Atlantic (US) were born in the Med.  Electronic tagging studies have shown that approximately 30% of eastern bluefin migrate to the western mid-Atlantic to feed.  Egregious illegal fishing in the Mediterranean Sea to fuel ranches, in which wild-caught fish are held and fattened prior to harvest, has decimated the eastern Atlantic bluefin tuna that once emigrated in droves to feed in US waters.  In 2007, the reported Mediterranean catch was 24,263 tonnes.  Factoring in the huge level of illegal fishing, the actual catch was estimated at 47,800 tonnes.  This is a far cry above the level recommended by scientists: 8500-15,000 tonnes for the Mediterranean and East Atlantic combined.  Some scientists allege that the failure of the US to catch its quota for the last five years is directly attributable to the situation in the Mediterranean.

Back on the western side of the Atlantic, Canada is the only nation whose fisheries still seem to be prospering.  A handgear fishery in the Gulf of St. Lawrence targets granders, which scientists have confirmed are almost all from the western Atlantic population.  The vast majority of these behemoths are exported to Japan following harvest.  An Appendix I listing should drastically reduce mortality of these truly giant bluefin in what may be the last remaining stronghold of the western population.

So would CITES mean the end of the US commercial fishery?  Surprisingly, again the answer is "not at all." 

It is true that the international market would be shut down in the event of an Appendix I listing,  but there would be no direct effect on the U.S. domestic bluefin market.  If you've taken a look around your neighborhood lately, you've undoubtedly seen several sushi restaurants cropping up.  Demand for bluefin tuna is alive and well in the U.S.   In fact, the US is a net importer of bluefin tuna.  While Appendix I would shut down our exports, it would also shut down cheap foreign imports, thus opening up the entire U.S. market to bluefin tuna caught in U.S. waters by American commercial fishermen.

What next?
The next meeting of the Conference of the Parties to CITES is scheduled for March 13-25, 2010 in Doha, Qatar.  We will know by October whether any nation has submitted a formal proposal to list bluefin tuna.  If bluefin tuna are listed in Qatar, any related trade restrictions will enter into force in June 2010, just in time to control the out-of-control summer ranching in the Mediterranean Sea.  So, rather than an enemy to fear, CITES may be our best hope to bring back our bluefin fisheries.