National Fisherman

Save tuna and fishers

As I write, representatives of 175 countries are considering banning international trade in bluefin tuna.

National Fisherman supports trade controls, but not a ban, and we wish this were the position of the Obama administration.

I was privileged enough in my youth to spend summers on harpoon boats based in Perkins Cove, Maine, and no fishing I have ever done compares with the excitement of chasing a school of bluefin running across the smooth surface of the ocean. If asked to designate the king of the seas, I'd name the bluefin without a moment's hesitation.

I relate this in the hope that otherwise skeptical readers will take at face value my assertion that I would never advocate putting bluefin stocks at risk.

We should not be surprised that it has come down to a trade ban, which would be imposed by the U.N. Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. (By the way, there are an estimated 5 million bluefin in the Atlantic and Mediterranean, so they are by no means "endangered" in the sense of the U.S. Endangered Species Act.)

For too many years, the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas ignored the advice of its own scientists in setting quotas and turned a blind eye when the fleets of the eastern Atlantic and the Med exceeded them.

For all of that, a number of developments suggest ICCAT is now serious.

The commission last year came up with a quota of 13,500 metric tons in the east, within the range proposed by its scientists. It also extended the spawning closure, which is significant, because bluefin disaggregate after they spawn. This means purse seiners in the east will not be able to clean up an entire school of fish in a single set.

Moreover, industry observers believe ICCAT will reduce the eastern quota to 8,000 tons next year as it seeks a 60 percent probability of rebuilding bluefin to BMSY, the biomass that can support maximum sustainable yield, by 2023.

Obviously, pressure from environmental groups and the threat of a ban on international trade have been instrumental in ICCAT's getting religion. And, not coincidentally, there has been a "sea change," in the words of one observer, in the attitude of many European Community and North African Rim nations toward conservation.

And, yes, there is harvest monitoring, and it seems to work. EC nations have invested significantly, if at long last, in order to preserve their fishery.

A CITES ban would dismiss these considerable efforts, displace workers and punish quota-abiding U.S. and other fishermen in the western Atlantic.

Yet in all probability a ban would not end international trade in bluefin, given the appetite of the Japanese and the willingness of Libya, Taiwan, the Philippines and other nations to do business. It would, however, ensure that American fishermen who might have hoped for $7 to $11 per pound from Japan during peak landing periods would instead net $2 to $3 domestically — to say nothing of what would happen to prices if green groups successfully embarked on a crusade to keep bluefin off U.S. menus, reminiscent of the "Give Swordfish a Break" campaign of the late 1990s.

Clearly, ICCAT's new approach is giving tuna a break. Let's give responsible U.S. fishermen a break as well.

— Jerry Fraser

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