The Last of the Bluefin Tuna?

By Barry Estabrook
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Photo by adulau/Flickr CC

There is a strong likelihood that someone in this generation will be the last human to eat a bluefin tuna. By most scientific accounts, the species hovers on the brink of extinction, if it hasn't already crossed that line.

Should bluefin disappear, much of the blame should go to an organization called the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT), although Carl Safina of the Blue Ocean Institute gave what some consider a more appropriate name, the International Conspiracy to Catch All Tuna. There are now only about 34,000 tuna swimming in the entire western Atlantic, down 82 percent from 1960s levels when the commission started "managing" the fishery.

ICCAT, which has 48 member countries, has been meeting this week in Porto de Galinhas, Brazil, to go through its annual charade of setting catch limits. They will be unveiled when it adjourns on Sunday.

I telephoned Dr. Susan Lieberman of the Pew Environmental Group, who is attending the session, to see how things were going. She answered just as she was leaving the conference room and heading out to dinner. I'm not sure whether she sounded more frustrated or pessimistic. In an address to the ICCAT delegates earlier in the week, Lieberman couldn't have been more clear about her group's catch-limit recommendation for Atlantic bluefins: zero.

If science doesn't convince ICCAT to act logically, maybe common sense will.

"Looking at the science, there's nothing else that makes any sense," she said. "The current quota is driving the species to commercial extinction."

Not that ICCAT ever pays much attention to science. "Last year ICCAT's scientists said that the quota should be no higher than 15,000 metric tons," said Lieberman. "So they went with 23,000 tons. In reality, with overfishing and illegal fishing, what they actually took is much higher. You can pretty much figure that it was double the quota. What we're calling for is to suspend the fishery. Let it recover, and then you can go back to fishing. But there's tremendous opposition, particularly from the European Union, to cutting anything."

Bluefins are amazing animals. They can live for 40 years and attain weights of 1,600 pounds, yet they blast through the water at speeds in excess of 60 miles per hour. In other respects, they have everything going against them. The tuna grow slowly, and young females lay a only fraction the number of eggs that older ones do. They only have two spawning grounds, one in the Gulf of Mexico and one in the Mediterranean Sea, and when they are on them, tuna form tight schools, making them easy to catch.

If ICCAT fails to act responsibly (and I haven't heard of anyone who is betting that it will), Atlantic bluefins' last hope for survival could rest with the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES). That group will meet in March 2010 to consider a proposal to list bluefin on its Appendix I, which would ban international trade in the fish. Interestingly, last month ICCAT's own researchers reported that the species clearly qualified for inclusion.

If science doesn't convince ICCAT to act logically, maybe common sense will. "We're not saying that no one should ever eat bluefin sushi again," said Lieberman. "We're saying that if you want to eat it in the future, you've got to bite the bullet and do the right thing now."

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2009/11/the-last-of-the-bluefin-tuna/30112/