Rescuing Tuna Salad

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Atlantic albacore tuna have long paddled in the shadow of their bigger, more expensive, and more endangered cousins, Atlantic bluefin tuna. Now, "the forgotten tuna" is finally getting some respect, but for all the wrong reasons.

Speaking at the Seafood Choices Alliance's Seafood Summit in Paris last weekend, Phil Kline, Senior Oceans Campaigner at Greenpeace, said, "Albacore is managed, or should I say mismanaged, by the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tuna (ICCAT). On ICCAT's watch, according to Kline, bluefin populations have been driven to the brink of extinction. "ICCAT's performance is an international disgrace," he added. "This does not bode well for albacore."

This news does not bode well for any American who enjoys the occasional tuna melt.

Scientific research on albacore is scant, but the facts that exist paint a grim picture. According to ICCAT's own researchers, annual catches have dropped from 60,000 tons to 20,000 tons since the 1980s, but ICCAT still sets an annual limit that, at 32,000 tons, is more than 50% higher than the annual take. In the Mediterranean, the situation is more worrisome. There, catches collapsed by more than half in a single year, from 6,545 tons in 2007 to 2,359 tons in 2008.

"This should be a huge indication that Mediterranean albacore are in deep trouble," Kline said. "When a fishery gives a warning sign like this it's time to take action."

Unfortunately, taking action is not one of ICCAT's strong points, even though its legal mandate is to maintain stocks at levels of maximum sustainable yield and to err on the side of caution whenever there is doubt.

"Despite dramatic drops in catches across the board, they tell fishermen, 'We don't know for certain whether the population is in collapse, so go ahead and fish,'" said Gerald Leape, Senior Officer of the Pew Environmental Group. "We say no data, no fishing. We have to take measures now to stop albacore from going down the same road as bluefin." Pew notes that at the very least, ICCAT should immediately reduce catch limits to be no higher than current annual harvest levels.

This news does not bode well for any American who enjoys the occasional tuna melt. Albacore accounts for one-third of the canned tuna market in this country. It is the only species that can legally be labeled as "white" tuna. And the United States is the largest importer of the species, according to Susan Jackson, president of the International Seafood Sustainability Foundation, an environmentalist group. Albacore are also caught in the Pacific Ocean, but because the labels on cans are required to list only the country where the product was processed, instead of where it was caught, it is impossible to tell where most canned albacore came from.

(As if your seafood buying decisions need to become more complicated, an important exception is canned tuna labeled American Albacore, which is caught off the West Coast with hooks and poles and is recognized as the only sustainable tuna fishery in the world by the highly regarded Marine Stewardship Council.)

With bluefin providing a textbook example of how not to manage a fishery, the question is whether ICCAT will reform its management in time, or whether it will live up to the nickname an increasingly skeptical environmental community has given it: the International Conspiracy to Catch All Tuna.

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Barry Estabrook is a former contributing editor at Gourmet magazine. He is the author of the recently released Tomatoland, a book about industrial tomato agriculture. He blogs at politicsoftheplate.com. More

Barry Estabrook was formerly a contributing editor at Gourmet magazine. Stints working on a dairy farm and commercial fishing boat as a young man convinced him that writing about how food was produced was a lot easier than actually producing it. He is the author of the recently released Tomatoland, a book about industrial tomato agriculture. He lives on a 30-acre tract in Vermont, where he gardens and tends a dozen laying hens, and his work also appears at politicsoftheplate.com.
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