Eleventh Hour for Tuna and Sharks

It’s nor or never for the bluefin tuna, an iconic ocean predator prized as a sashimi delicacy–and being overfished to the edge of extinction. “If we take action now, a thriving and sustainable bluefin fishery may be possible once again in both the western and eastern Atlantic,” says Susan Lieberman, director of International Policy at the Pew Environment Group and former chief of the Division of Scientific Authority with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Lieberman makes the case for why international regulators meeting in France this week must suspend the fishery for Atlantic bluefin tuna until strong management and enforcement measures are in place and the species shows signs of recovery.

By Susan Lieberman

One of the biggest challenges for those working on marine conservation issues is that many species by their nature tend to migrate, crossing the borders of multiple countries and spending significant amounts of time in areas beyond the jurisdiction of any one nation.

This places a large burden on international bodies, such as treaties and regional fisheries management organizations (RFMOs), to ensure that such animals are not overexploited.

This week, one of the world’s largest and oldest RFMOs, the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT), is meeting in Paris. And while this organization may not be well-known by the general public, its actions and–often its inactions–have a tremendous impact on the health of Atlantic bluefin tuna and an array of shark species.

Bluefin tuna devouring mackerel picture.jpg

National Geographic painting of bluefin tuna devouring mackerel by Stanley Meltzoff.

Bluefin in big Trouble

Atlantic bluefin tuna are remarkable animals. Like mammals, they are warm-blooded. These fish also provide a textbook example of a migratory species, annually traversing the entire Atlantic Ocean in their search for food and spawning grounds. Unfortunately, they also offer a prime example of a species that is now threatened with extinction due to poor management and overfishing.

bluefin tuna facts.jpg

Bluefin today are considered by many leading scientists to be an endangered species. Indeed, as confirmed in a study by ICCAT’s own scientists last year, bluefin tuna are now below 15 percent of their historical population size. Yet the international community has not taken any meaningful steps to halt their precipitous decline–and governments have allowed short-term economic interests to take precedent over strong science and sound management.

ICCAT has both let current quotas for bluefin catches go unenforced as well as ignored growing evidence of massive underreporting of fishing for this imperiled species. In fact, it has been estimated that in 2007, 61,000 metric tons of Atlantic bluefin were caught in the Eastern Atlantic, although the quota was set at 29,500 metric tons–which itself represents a level twice what scientists have advised as sustainable.

Moreover, a recent report by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists found evidence of massive fraud and illegal fishing of bluefin, particularly in the Mediterranean Sea. For example, the report (which Pew, Adessium Foundation and The Waterloo Foundation funded) uncovered that between 1998 and 2007, one in three bluefin tuna was destined for a black market conservatively valued at U.S.$4 billion. This pattern of gross mismanagement and blatant disregard for science can’t be allowed to continue.

Saving the World’s Sharks

Of the 591 shark and ray species assessed by scientists with the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, 21 percent are currently threatened with extinction and 17 percent are near-threatened. In fact, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization estimates more than half of highly migratory sharks are now either overexploited or depleted.

The state of shark fisheries has become so dire that the UN has passed eight resolutions urging RFMOs to take steps to put shark populations on a healthy trajectory. Some of these date back as far as a decade ago.

Nevertheless, up to 73 million sharks are killed each year to support the global shark fin trade.

Compounding this problem is the often unintentional catch of sharks by irresponsible fishing practices, such as the use of surface longlines, which can stretch unattended for miles, with thousands of baited hooks attached. The continued usage of such indiscriminate fishing gear in places like the Gulf of Mexico catches and kills scores of sharks, along with countless other animals from sea turtles to seabirds–all incidental to whatever fish are being sought. In some cases, sharks are taken intentionally in other fisheries, but in almost all cases sharks are unmanaged and there are no limits to the numbers that can be caught.

As sharks tend to grow slowly, mature late and produce few young over their lifetimes, they are exceptionally vulnerable to overexploitation. Tragically, despite these threats, the international community has failed to take any meaningful action to protect sharks. For example, science now indicates that the scalloped hammerhead is 98 percent depleted in the northwest Atlantic. Yet, it is still not afforded any international protection.

Setting Things Right

The science regarding threats to Atlantic bluefin tuna and global shark populations is clear. We won’t be able to solve these problems overnight, but ICCAT can take a big step forward by listening to the advice of scientists around the globe and acting to protect these species while we still can.

More specifically, ICCAT member governments meeting this month in Paris should:

  • Suspend the fishery for Atlantic bluefin tuna until strong management and enforcement measures are in place and the species shows signs of recovery.

Unfortunately, it’s now or never for bluefin tuna. If we take action now, a thriving and sustainable bluefin fishery may be possible once again in both the western and eastern Atlantic.

  • Prohibit the take of Atlantic bluefin tuna in their spawning grounds in the Mediterranean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico.

Prohibiting the take of spawning fish is a common management tool for protecting and restoring overexploited populations. Indeed, ICCAT’s Standing Committee on Research and Statistics recommended in 2006 that the Mediterranean Sea be closed to fishing for Atlantic bluefin tuna during their spawning season. ICCAT governments, however, did not adopt this measure. Now is the time for them to correct their mistake.

  • Adopt concrete, precautionary catch limits to significantly reduce fishing pressure so as to stop overfishing of North Atlantic shortfin mako and oceanic whitetip sharks.

Whether caught accidently, or intentionally for their valuable fins, current international shark fishing practices are endangering the species and threatening the stability of ocean ecosystems.

“We tend to see the ocean as endless, and its bounty unlimited. But as evidenced by the well-documented collapse of cod populations in the Atlantic, we now know better.”

We tend to see the ocean as endless, and its bounty unlimited. But as evidenced by the well-documented collapse of cod populations in the Atlantic, we now know better.

It’s time for RFMOS to take the management of our oceans seriously. And it’s time for ICCAT to take responsibility for past mistakes and enact policies that ensure a future for both Atlantic bluefin and sharks, through the implementation of strong, science-based conservation management measures.

Susan Lieberman is director of International Policy at the Pew Environment Group. Lieberman formerly served as chief of the Division of Scientific Authority with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service where she led all scientific and policy work related to the international trade of endangered species. Read more about the work of the Pew Charitable Trusts.

Blog posts by Susan Lieberman.

The views expressed in this commentary are those of Susan Lieberman or the Pew Environment Group, and not necessarily the views of the National Geographic Society.

Join Nat Geo News Watch community

Readers are encouraged to comment on this and other posts–and to share similar stories, photos and links–on the Nat Geo News Watch Facebook page. You must sign up to be a member of Facebook and a fan of the blog page to do this.

Leave a comment on this page

You may also email David Braun (dbraun@ngs.org) if you have a comment that you would like to be considered for adding to this page. You are welcome to comment anonymously under a pseudonym.  



Meet the Author
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