In November, representatives of over 50 countries gathered in the coastal city of Agadir, Morocco, to determine the fate of one of the ocean’s most iconic species—the Atlantic bluefin tuna.
Every year, the governments that are members of the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tuna (ICCAT) struggle to jointly manage this highly migratory fish, and every year it’s a battle of science versus politics and short-term profit versus long-term sustainability. Given the Atlantic bluefin fishery is worth about $1 billion annually, and individual fish can sell for tens of thousands of dollars, it’s no surprise that politics has played such a prominent role in past management decisions. In 2008, ICCAT’s handling of bluefin tuna was deemed a “travesty in fisheries management” and an “international disgrace.”
In 2009, ICCAT turned a corner. For the first time, it set annual bluefin fishing catch limits in both the eastern and western Atlantic in line with the advice of its scientific body. This September, in preparation for setting new limits, ICCAT scientists updated their estimate of the number of adult bluefin tuna remaining in the western Atlantic. Bluefin found west of 45°W longitude are considered by ICCAT to be part of the western Atlantic population, whose only known spawning ground is in the Gulf of Mexico. The stock assessment provided a glimmer of hope, detecting a 13% increase in the western population since 2009.
However, the population remains severely depleted at just 36% of what it was in 1970, a time when industrial fishing had already severely depleted the species. While it is encouraging that following scientific advice works, ICCAT’s scientists recommended that managers keep the western catch limit at 1,750 metric tons. This would allow the population to continue to increase and give scientists time to address major uncertainties in the stock assessment that may be artificially inflating their estimates of western bluefin.
When governments came together in Agadir in November, it was clear that this would be a test of whether ICCAT would continue to make sound, science-based management decisions or if it would go back to its old ways. Governments including the U.S., Japan, Brazil, and others, joined by conservation groups and Pew Environment Group took a position to strictly adhere to the scientific advice and not increase the catch of western bluefin.
However, others at the meeting argued against the scientists’ advice, claiming that the bluefin have recovered and that it is time to reap the benefits. Some commercial fishermen from the U.S., Canada, and Japan along with the Canadian government decided to make their own interpretation of the science. In simple terms, their argument is that some yet-to-be-identified environmental factor has caused an irreversible shift in the western bluefin population and now, even if more adult bluefin are left in the ocean, the population will never be much greater than it is today. Following this logic through, if nothing is to be gained from keeping more fish in the ocean to reproduce, then nothing is lost if they take more out. Therefore, the Canadian government and industry representatives called for increasing the bluefin quota to 2,000 metric tons for the next three years —a very risky proposition given there is no evidence to support their theory and plenty of evidence to suggest that western bluefin cannot withstand increased fishing pressure.
On November 19, the final day of ICCAT’s annual meeting in Agadir, sound science emerged victorious. ICCAT decided to maintain eastern and western bluefin quotas in line with the scientific advice, marking a big victory for bluefin and for those scientists and countries that have fought hard to protect them.
The battle is far from over, however. While quotas were supposed to be set through 2015, advocates for increasing the quota were successful in requiring that quotas for the western bluefin be revisited next year. Additional attacks on the science are likely. These attacks will likely focus on the productive capacity of bluefin (i.e., claiming that increased fishing is sustainable given there can be no more bluefin than there are today) and on the resilience of bluefin to fishing pressure (i.e., claiming that bluefin tuna are spawning at younger ages and in areas outside the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean).
More Attacks on Science?
These politically motivated attacks on the science are not unique to Atlantic bluefin tuna and are being waged in multiple fora in the quest for higher catch limits on depleted species. Requests for annual stock assessments are distracting scientists from more pressing priorities such as improving their models to reduce uncertainties. Competing models presented by industry-funded scientists are being touted as equally likely to those models presented by independent scientific bodies. It’s a clever strategy—muddy the scientific advice enough to justify any management decision.
ICCAT has scheduled a meeting this June in Japan that will bring together both scientists and fishery managers to review the current science and “support” the next western bluefin tuna stock assessment. It’s critical that this meeting focus on the best available science rather than serving as a political forum to water down the current scientific advice.
ICCAT is to be commended for listening to its scientists this time around, not just in the western Atlantic but in the eastern Atlantic as well (where the quota was increased slightly to 13,500 metric tons, in line with the scientific advice). If Atlantic bluefin and the communities that depend on them are to once again flourish, it is up to ICCAT member governments to defend the best available science and to continue on its course of choosing the scientific advice and long-term sustainability over short-term political and economic interests.
To see legal bluefin fishing in action, check out the second season of Wicked Tuna on National Geographic Channel, premiering on Sunday, January 13 at 9 PM ET.