This is part II of a three-part series on human-caused destruction of life in the oceans. Part I, called Peak Fish And The Age Of Slime, was published yesterday.
On May 27, 2011 the Associated Press reported the latest setback in the ongoing fight to save the North Atlantic bluefin tuna (species name Thunnus thynnus).
PORTLAND, Maine – The bluefin tuna has escaped being placed on the endangered species list, but the majestic fish prized by sushi lovers will be listed as a "species of concern" by the federal agency that oversees America's fisheries.
After extensive scientific review, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced Friday it has determined that bluefin tuna does not warrant protection under the Endangered Species Act. The agency conducted the review after the Center for Biological Diversity submitted a petition seeking an endangered status for the fish, claiming the species faces possible extinction because of overfishing and habitat degradation, including effects of the BP oil spill on bluefin spawning grounds in the Gulf of Mexico.
I have a few things to say before proceeding. I will be giving you additional details below about a story whose broad outline you probably already know, so let's get back to first principles.
I reject the label environmentalist, yet most would say I am one because I believe overhunted species like Thunnus thynnus should be preserved at all costs. Pigeon-holing is misleading in this context because it implies there is some of kind of two-party system operating here, just as with Democrats and Republicans. Let's call the "other" party commercialists.
When you have two opposed parties in dispute, Americans get the overwhelming impression that there are also two opposed but equally "reasonable" points of view on the issues. That is not true here, and Thunnus thynnus is a case in point. If commercial interests win the day, not only does this species face accelerated extinction over the long haul, but also faces what we might call commercial extinction in the short run. That's exactly what happened to the nothern Atlantic cod (Gadus morhua) fishery off Newfoundland and the Grand Banks.
Cod fish landings in tons. A similar crash will likely happen to north Atlantic bluefin tuna populations if current fishing practices are maintained. Source
Here is how Carl Safina recently put it in Bluefin Tuna: In Danger But Not Endangered.
On May 27, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) announced it won't list Atlantic bluefin tuna as endangered. (Note timing: a Friday before a 3-day holiday.)
The Atlantic bluefin tuna is not in imminent danger of extinction. Neither is the American buffalo; it's just demolished. Atlantic bluefin are, similarly, demolished. Officially bluefin are down 80 percent. But that's since the mid 1970s, when population estimates began. Yet back in the mid 1960s, commercial fishing boat operators were so alarmed by the decline in bluefin tuna that they themselves spearheaded forming the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT)
And if you read accounts of bluefin tuna sport-fishing in the 1920s, it's easy to conclude that bluefin today are in the single-digit percentages of their former numbers. The schools of fish we used to see frothing the ocean's blue prairies in the 1980s are gone. The difference between the buffalo and the bluefin is that for the buffalo the main hunt is ended.
Now, if those on the winning side don't care if Thunnus thynnus goes extinct in the senses just described—"we'll simply catch and eat something else"—then that's all she wrote for one magnificent species in the short-term. However, the same fate will eventually apply to all fish populations. Some decades from now they'll all be actually or commercially extinct. Fish farming (aquaculture) will no longer work, for it depends on feedstocks from other marine animals. It will no longer be possible to argue that commercially profitable, viable substitutes exist, which is what the Bureau of Labor Statistics does in keeping "official" inflation low. (Is beef too expensive? Eat pork instead. Still too expensive? Eat beans.)
In short, there is no political argument, and there is no two-party system pitting environmentalists against commercialists. The disparate outcomes are entirely clear here—bluefin tuna will either be living and spawning in the north Atlantic or they won't be. Even if remnant populations exist, they will be too small to exploit and in greater danger of disappearing altogether—extinction is the final outcome. Everything else, as when commercial fishermen claim they are following sustainable fishing practices or make other "reasonable" arguments, is bullshit.
Here's the scientific assessment of north Atlantic bluefin stocks as of 2008.
The western population, considered by the assessment as all fish west of the 45ºW meridian, was assessed to have an adult biomass of 8693 metric tons (MT)... “Adults” were taken to be all fish age 8 and older. Based on electronic tagging and fishery data, the true age of maturity for western spawners in the Gulf Of Mexico is closer to age 11-12, so the actual number of remaining western adults may be lower. The eastern assessment was compromised by lack of catch reporting... Nevertheless, the scientists reconstructed catches using trade records and assessed the population at 100,046 MT. Total 2007 landings were estimated to be upwards of 60,000 MT, double the 29,500 MT allowable catch, and far higher than the 15,000 MT suggested by scientists. This tremendous catch is thought to be causing a 15% annual decline in the adult population size. Clearly, this level of catch is unsustainable. Source
The Center for Biological Diversity's attempt to use the Endangered Species Act to save bluefin tuna was a response to the failure of CITES to ban the trade in these fish. That occurred at the end of 2010 as reported by Nature's Anjali Nayar in Bad news for tuna is bad news for CITES.
Scientists and conservationists were disappointed last week by the rejection of proposals to ban the trade in eastern Atlantic and Mediterranean bluefin tuna (Thunnus thynnus), despite evidence that stocks of the fish have fallen below 15% of their historic levels.
In the months leading up to the fifteenth meeting of the parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) in Doha, Qatar, independent experts confirmed that bluefin tuna meets CITES' criteria for an endangered species. Yet a proposal by Monaco to ban international trade in bluefin tuna was defeated by 68 votes to 20, with 30 countries abstaining.
"The science was done and dusted months before the meetings," says Colman O'Criodain, an international trade policy analyst for the conservation group WWF, based in Gland, Switzerland. "The politics overrode the science."
In effect, CITES passed the buck because of the existence of ICCAT.
Kevern Cochrane, who convened the United Nation's Food and Agriculture Organization's expert panel on the issue says the science was well received and helped focus the debate. "Everybody agreed that the population is under threat," he says.
But economic interests won the day. Atlantic bluefin tuna can grow to over 4 metres long and weigh over 600 kilograms, and a single fish can sell for over $100,000. Mediterranean countries catch most bluefin tuna; Japan eats most of the fish.
One complication in getting bluefin tuna listed under CITES is that there is another body for managing the species, the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT), based in Madrid.
ICCAT would be the best body to govern Atlantic bluefin if it does its job well, says Cochrane. "But judging by the status of bluefin tuna in the past few decades, it's not been doing its job effectively."
Environmentalists and scientists lovingly call ICCAT by another name.
The International Conspiracy to Catch All Tuna
In November 2009, ICCAT reduced its 2010 bluefin tuna catch quotas by over over 60% from its 2009 levels, to 13,500 tonnes, possibly in response to the threat of CITES action.
Japan, one of the main opponents of CITES protection for bluefin tuna, agrees that quotas needed to be stricter and has lobbied for ICCAT's continued management of the stock. The body's scientific committee had recommended a quota of 8,000 tonnes, to give bluefin stocks a 50% chance of recovering by 2023.
We're still on the bluefin tuna merry-go-round. Round and round she goes, and where she will stops—if current fishing practices are maintained—everybody knows.