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Protect the Atlantic bluefin tuna

Commercial overfishing has slashed the population of this ocean giant off the U.S by more than 90%. The Obama administration should list it as endangered to give the species a chance to recover.

October 09, 2009|Joshua Reichert | Joshua Reichert is the managing director of the Pew Environment Group.

The Obama administration has indicated that when it comes to international agreements, it's giving high priority to arms control, human rights, law enforcement, investment and maritime law. With respect to the environment, it has listed climate change, plant genetic resources and persistent organic pollutants, among other issues.

Tuna fish haven't been mentioned.

Unfortunately, that omission reveals a sea of trouble, which the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has a rare chance to correct if it acts quickly, and if NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco follows her best scientific instincts.

The Atlantic bluefin tuna isn't the tuna your children eat for lunch. As one of the fastest swimming and most valuable of all fish in our oceans, it doesn't come in a can but rather appears on the menus of only the priciest restaurants. And it's in dire straits. The population that spawns in U.S. waters has declined by 82% since the 1970s, as commercial fishing fleets have responded to plunging catches by simply fishing more intensively, as if the supply were inexhaustible.

Meanwhile, efforts to impose sustainable catch limits on this fish have failed miserably -- for decades. Last year, for example, the scientific committee of the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas, the entity that is responsible for regulating this fishery, recommended a catch limit of 8,500 to 15,000 tons in order to stop its precipitous decline. Unfortunately, the commission eventually agreed on a catch of 22,000 tons. Meanwhile, the actual haul could be twice that because of illegal fishing.

The Atlantic bluefin is only one example in an ocean that's being overfished at an alarming rate, a practice that marine scientist Daniel Pauly recently compared to the Ponzi scheme of convicted swindler Bernie Madoff, offering constant returns from an ever-diminishing resource. If this continues, we will pay a severe price for exhausting what has nourished humanity throughout history. Atlantic bluefin would be an excellent species with which to start a new approach.

Because current international fisheries management has proved toothless, it's time to use another tool, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, to save these magnificent fish. This 1975 landmark agreement has been instrumental in helping such threatened animals as whales, tigers and elephants. A listing under Appendix I of CITES would still allow fishermen to sell bluefin domestically but would stop high-seas fishing and international trade, finally giving the tuna a chance to recover. It would mark the first time a major commercial fish was protected in such a fashion.

Our best science clearly indicates that such steps are necessary, but NOAA has traditionally been reluctant to oppose commercial fishing interests. Now, however, Lubchenco -- a world-class marine scientist -- heads the agency and could give it a new direction, signaling strong support for conservation measures that would help stave off commercial extinction for this crucial species and others.

In fact, a proposal to protect bluefin under CITES has been made by the principality of Monaco. U.S. co-sponsorship of this proposal would help the effort immensely and prove a great opportunity for Washington to reassert its leadership in international conservation.

The parties to CITES convene only once every two to three years, and the deadline for submitting proposals and co-sponsorships for the upcoming March meeting is Oct. 14.

Some have looked to the European Union to provide leadership on listing bluefin tuna, but despite 21 countries favoring it and only six opposed, a recent vote weighted by population and other factors narrowly undercut that support.

So now it's up to the United States. The sportfishing community strongly supports the listing; the science overwhelmingly justifies this step; and common sense tells us that we can't keep withdrawing from the bank faster than we're replenishing it.

This is a crucial test for Lubchenco and the Obama administration -- the first major conservation decision for a marine species. We desperately need to begin a new chapter in international fisheries management. Cosponsoring the Appendix I listing of Atlantic bluefin tuna may be a tough decision for the administration, but it's the best path available to protect this ocean giant from slipping further into the dark abyss of commercial extinction.

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