Changing Planet

The Bottom Line: A Short Season for Big Fish

This year’s purse-seine fishing for bluefin tuna in the Mediterranean Sea kicked off this week, but don’t blink or you might miss it.

On Tuesday, May 15, large commercial purse-seine vessels with massive nets set out to catch literally tons of tuna by encircling entire schools of breeding bluefin. The season officially ends June 15, but if the recent past is any indicator, the season will close sooner than that. After years of overfishing and a decline in the bluefin population, catch limits were finally set at scientifically recommended levels in 2010. These new limits are good for the bluefin, because they are much lower than those previously set. As a result, in the past two years, several countries have met their quotas before the end of the monthlong season, catching all of their allocated tuna in just one or two weeks.

Although the season may last less than a month, this is no small-scale fishery. In the coming weeks, millions of pounds of bluefin will be captured by purse-seine boats, which will be worth millions of dollars on the global market. The majority of these fish will be transferred to cages in the sea, known as ranches, around the Mediterranean, where they will be fed and fattened until they are ready to be sold. Proper operation and control of such a large and valuable fishery depends on having an accurate, real-time count of the fish that are caught and transferred to ranches so officials can ensure that quotas are not exceeded during the frantic rush to fish.

Fortunately, this is the last year that bluefin catches will be tracked by an outdated paper-based system. In November 2011, the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT), the group of 74 countries that manages bluefin fishing in the Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean, committed to developing and implementing an electronic tracking system that will address many of the deficiencies of the current method. The electronic bluefin catch documentation program will allow fishermen to enter their catches in a central database in real time on the Internet so that authorities can get an up-to-the-minute accounting of the catch and close the fishery before official limits are exceeded. The electronic tracing also will help reduce fraud and will deter illegal fishing by requiring verification along each step of the supply chain, from sea to plate.

Several governments have volunteered to test the new system this fall, including the European Union, Japan, and Turkey, before it is fully implemented throughout the fishery in May 2013. This is a good start, but to ensure a robust testing environment with geographic and gear diversity, more countries need to commit to be a part of this pilot program. In particular, the United States should volunteer to test the system on the western population of bluefin in the Gulf of Mexico.

It is an important time for bluefin. With the Mediterranean purse-seine fishing season already under way, a tracking system being tested this fall, and new annual quotas being set at the next ICCAT meeting in November, there is an opportunity to finally address some of the decades-old failures of bluefin tuna management. Current fishing quotas must not be increased until enforcement and monitoring are strengthened, the science behind bluefin stock assessments is improved, and there is evidence of improvement in the species’ status. In future posts, I’ll be sure to update you on the latest news and happenings and also to let you know what you can do to help guarantee a sustainable future for bluefin on both sides of the Atlantic.

Lee Crockett joined The Pew Charitable Trusts in June 2007 as director of Federal Fisheries Policy. As Ddirector, U.S. Oceans, he led Pew’s efforts to establish policies to end overfishing and promote ecosystem-based fisheries management in the United States under the authority of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (MSA), the federal law that governs ocean fish management. As director, Crockett oversees all of Pew’s U.S. fisheries campaigns. These include efforts in the Northeast, South Atlantic, Gulf of Mexico, U.S. Caribbean, and the Pacific. Before joining Pew, Crockett was executive director of the Marine Fish Conservation Network, the largest national coalition dedicated exclusively to promoting the sustainable management of ocean fish. Under his leadership, the campaign helped efforts to reauthorize and strengthen the MSA. Previously, he was a fishery biologist with the National Marine Fisheries Service, leading agency efforts to protect essential fish habitat. He also served as a staff member of the House Committee on Merchant Marine and Fisheries, working on a variety of fisheries, environmental and boating safety issues. Crockett holds a bachelor’s degree in biology and a master’s degree in biological oceanography from the University of Connecticut. Before college, he served in the U.S. Coast Guard. He’s also an avid angler who enjoys fishing the Potomac River and Chesapeake Bay.

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