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Nations wrestle over ban on tuna trade

Bluefin tuna are voracious predators, feasting constantly on fish and squid. But they have the misfortune to not be on the top of the food chain. Humans prey on tuna, and we seem to not be able to eat enough of this magnificent animal, especially when it is offered as sashimi in the finest restaurants....

Bluefin tuna are voracious predators, feasting constantly on fish and squid. But they have the misfortune to not be on the top of the food chain. Humans prey on tuna, and we seem to not be able to eat enough of this magnificent animal, especially when it is offered as sashimi in the finest restaurants.

So prized is the flesh of bluefin tuna that it can sell for hundreds of dollars a pound. A 512-pound (232.6-kilogram) bluefin fetched a near-record 16.28 million yen (U.S.$175,000) at an auction at Tokyo’s Tsukiji fish market in January, according to media reports.


A painting of Atlantic bluefin tuna as they spawn in warm water.

NGS illustration by Stanley Meltzoff

Japan eats more bluefin tuna than any other nation. But the fish is also popular in many other parts of the world, and that’s what’s leading to its demise. Tuna is being harvested faster than the species can replace itself, especially on the eastern side of the Atlantic Ocean.

tuna facts.jpg

The scarcer bluefin tuna becomes, the more its price rises, the more it is in demand as a delicacy. National Geographic Explorer in Residence and marine biologist Sylvia Earle once told me, “When the world is down to the last tuna, someone will be willing to pay a million dollars to eat it.”

There is money to be made all along the supply chain for such a valuable commodity–from ocean to dinner plate–and this might explain why there is a fight brewing between fishing nations over whether it’s time to shut down the international trade in the Atlantic bluefin tuna, before we eat it out of existence.

Extensive research has made it clear that the Atlantic bluefin tuna is so overfished that its populations have fallen to levels that threaten its survival. This has prompted conservationists to support a ban on international commercial trade in Atlantic bluefin tuna, giving the endangered fish a chance to recover.

The instrument that would secure such a ban, at least in theory, is Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).

So Atlantic bluefin tuna wil be on the agenda, if not on the menu, when some 175 governments attend a CITES conference in Doha, Qatar, later this month to discuss listing the species in Appendix I. (175 governments weigh stricter controls over wildlife trade)

Monaco has proposed that the meeting include the Atlantic bluefin tuna in Appendix I, which would make trade in wild-caught specimens of the fish illegal. Two thirds of the 175 CITES member countries present at the Doha conference would have to vote in favor for Monaco’s proposal to be adopted.

The United States supports the proposal. European Union nations appear to be divided over the issue. According to a Reuters news report, a bloc of African countries will vote for the listing, provided that the countries who want to protect the tuna support an African proposal to uphold a CITES ban on the international trade of elephant ivory. (The ivory issue is a separate story, to be visited in a future blog post.)

Some tuna-fishing countries, notably Japan, are reported by various news organizations to be opposed to the proposed trade ban on bluefin tuna. Japan, it is said, will lodge reservations about the listing and will defy it if it is passed.

Atlantic bluefin tuna are managed as two separate stocks: an eastern Atlantic and Mediterranean stock, and a western stock.


Overlapping ranges of eastern and western bluefin tuna. Some tagged specimens have been tracked swimming from North American to European waters several times a year.

NGS map by Jerome Cookson 

Announcing the support for the proposal to ban all international commercial trade of Atlantic bluefin tuna, Tom Strickland, Assistant Secretary of the Interior, this week said the U.S. continued to have strong concerns about the long-term viability of either the fish or the fishery.

The Eastern Atlantic and Mediterranean tuna stock was threatened by overharvesting, which included illegal, unregulated, and unreported fishing, Strickland said in a statement. The western spawning stock had stabilized at a very low population level, he added.

If the bluefin tuna is listed under Appendix I, commercial fishermen in the U.S. could continue to sell to U.S. consumers western Atlantic bluefin tuna caught in U.S. waters. The same rule would apply to other nations selling tuna caught in their waters to their domestic markets.


A painting of bluefin tuna devouring mackerel.

NGS illustration by Stanley Meltzoff

In welcoming the U.S. Government’s support for a listing of bluefin tuna on CITES Appendix I, the conservation charity WWF said: “The U.S. has a vested interest in this issue, as a fishing nation of Atlantic bluefin tuna–so if the U.S. can see the bigger picture and back the international trade ban proposal for the long-term survival of a species and a fishery, all countries can and should do so.”

The Pew Environment Group, a policy think tank based in Washington, D.C., strongly supports the proposal to include the Atlantic bluefin tuna in CITES Appendix I.

The Pew Environment Group praised the Obama administration for supporting the proposed CITES Appendix I listing for Atlantic bluefin tuna. Pew also called for all governments to join the United States in advocating for the proposal which would prohibit international commercial trade of the species.

“The Obama administration’s decision to support a CITES Appendix I listing of Atlantic bluefin tuna could be a real game changer for the species.”

“The Obama administration’s decision to support a CITES Appendix I listing of Atlantic bluefin tuna could be a real game changer for the species,” said Susan Lieberman, director of international policy at the Pew Environment Group. “Other governments can either join Monaco and the United States in boldly supporting the conservation of bluefin tuna, sharks and other marine species or they can yield to commercial fishing interests that focus more on short-term profits than a sustainable future for both fish and local fishing communities,” Lieberman said in a statement.

“The bluefin is a giant, warm-blooded fish that’s capable of sudden acceleration to highway speeds,” said former tuna fisherman Carl Safina, founder of Blue Ocean Institute. “They were thrilling to catch, but right now a sea-going buffalo hunt is forcing them toward commercial extinction. The United States and other governments–must vigorously support the effort to hit the brakes.”

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Meet the Author

Author Photo David Max Braun
More than forty years in U.S., UK, and South African media gives David Max Braun global perspective and experience across multiple storytelling platforms. His coverage of science, nature, politics, and technology has been published/broadcast by the BBC, CNN, NPR, AP, UPI, National Geographic, TechWeb, De Telegraaf, Travel World, and Argus South African Newspapers. He has published two books and won several journalism awards. In his 22-year career at National Geographic he was VP and editor in chief of National Geographic Digital Media, and the founding editor of the National Geographic Society blog, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society's mission and initiatives. He also directed the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship, awarded to Americans seeking the opportunity to spend nine months abroad, engaging local communities and sharing stories from the field with a global audience. A regular expert on National Geographic Expeditions, David also lectures on storytelling for impact. He has 120,000 followers on social media: Facebook  Twitter  LinkedIn