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March 11, 2010

So Long Sushi, US Sides With Bluefin Tuna

by Rosanne Skirble

Fate of endangered fish considered this week at global convention

In the 1970s, Carl Safina fished off the U.S. Atlantic coast for bluefin tuna, a majestic warm-blooded predator that travels at highway speeds and can weigh as much as 650 kilograms.

"I've seen acres and acres of bluefin tuna at the surface, exploding through the surface and chasing prey fish." Safina says it wasn't a question of whether the fishermen would catch one. "When the fishing was good, we just assumed we would be going out and catching tuna."

Diminishing species

Over the last 40 years, though, the global adult bluefin tuna population has declined by more than 80 percent. The trend has been driven by industrial overfishing, coupled with surging demand, largely from Japan, which consumes 80 percent of the world's supply. The prized bluefin tuna is usually served as sashimi or sushi.

In 1969, the International Commission for Conservation of Atlantic Tunas was charged with setting quotas and managing healthy tuna populations. They've failed in that mission, says Safina, now president of the conservation group, Blue Ocean Institute.

"In the last ten years, with the fish on the western side of the Atlantic pretty much demolished, a lot of the focus of the fishing has intensified on the eastern side of the Atlantic and the Mediterranean and that population is now falling apart," says Safina. "And the Tuna Commission has demonstrated on an annual basis its complete inability to control the fishing."

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species or CITES is a global treaty that protects 30,000 species of animals and plants. The CITES Conference in Doha, Qatar March 13-25 will consider the proposed commercial trade ban on bluefin tuna.

Game changer

The Obama administration recently announced support for the measure.

Susan Lieberman, director of International Policy at the Pew Environment Group, applauds the decision which she says could be a game changer for the species.

She expects the 27-member European Community to vote as a bloc in support of the ban. As the world's leading consumer, Japan opposes the measure, and could take a reservation or opt out of the treaty in order to continue fishing. However, since Japan depends largely on tuna imports, Lieberman says the focus will be on ensuring other countries don't opt out as well in order to supply the Japanese market.

"If Japan, unfortunately, takes a reservation they still have to have a country they can import from because they can only then import from another CITES country that has a reservation. The U.S. will not take one. The EU will not take one. And we believe that the EU will exert sufficient pressure on the North African countries to do the same."

Rebound

The Blue Ocean Institute's Safina says he expects the species to eventually recover should a commercial bluefin fishery ban go into effect. "You would see something right away and then probably that growth will begin to increase at an accelerated rate, and in a decade you would see very substantial recoveries," says Safina.    

The ban would not affect the popular albacore or yellowfin tuna that end up in cans.

In addition to the bluefin tuna ban, delegates at the Doha meeting will consider proposals to put trade controls on eight threatened species of shark and red and pink corals.