Monday, July 9, 2012

Bluefin Tuna Swims On

The debate swims on.  Do I eat bluefin tuna or don't I?  Are the stocks rebuilding or are we decimating an entire species?  In the seafood world I don't think there is a more publicized fish or a more disputed topic.  Articles and t.v. shows have been based on the free swimming bluefin tuna and many arguments have been made in all directions, from supporting the increase of harvest to doing away with the fishery altogether.  Who should we be listening to?  One has to wonder with all the opposing information out there, where exactly does the bluefin stand?

There are three varieties of the bluefin out there; the Pacific (Thunnus orientalis), Southern (Thunnus maccoyii), and the Atlantic (Thunnus thynnus).  About 80% of all bluefin tuna ends up in Japan, the biggest consumer by far of any country.  Most stock assessments of Pacific bluefin report that the fish is severely over-fished and the World Conservation Union lists the Southern and Atlantic species as threatened.  The International  Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) meets just about every year and has for years supplied assessments warning that bluefin were being over-harvested at numbers that were not sustainable.  Some progress has been made supporting these reports and some area's quotas have been cut.  However, due to political pressure from representatives of countries that attended the commission, notably Japan, the cuts in quota have not been severe.  In most cases they can be best described as minimal and inadequate. 

In the Mediterranean and eastern Atlantic tuna ranches are helping reduce the number of wild bluefin swimming in open water.  These ranches operate by seining wild bluefin and then transporting them to open net farms where they are fed and fattened.  From there they are harvested and sold to the market, most going to Japan.  This process is far from sustainable.  From the many pounds of wild fish it takes to feed the tuna, to the fact that wild fish are prevented from spawning, the endgame of this process is no more bluefin tuna. 

Then there is the western Atlantic bluefin fishery where the U.S. and Canada have small quotas and strict regulations.  Purse seining is forbidden.  Most fish are taken out of the water the old-fashioned way, hook and line.  This eliminates most, if not all, by-catch and prevents fishermen from taking several tons of fish out of the water with one scoop.  Of the 12,900 metric tons of bluefin tuna taken out of the water (reported) a year, the U.S. fishery only accounts for 800 metric tons.  This artisan fishery is also seeing signs of the bluefin bouncing back.  The stock assessment has been going in the right direction for over two years and this year it looks even more promising.

We are going to have to wait until 2013 before NOAA and ICCAT revisit the bluefin tuna debate.  Until then, I do not see how stock assessments for all bluefin fisheries can be seen as anything but over-fished.  It is important that our domestic artisan fishery remains intact.  I do believe this is the right way to fish bluefin and I would like the U.S. to take a stand and recommend this type of fishing and regulation to the global community.  This may ruffle some feathers, but I think its worth it, when you factor that an entire species is at stake.  The proof is in the numbers and the numbers report that what's happening in the western Atlantic needs to start happening elsewhere.  The fish will come back, if we let them.  Bluefin are majestic swimmers and highly evolved animals that deserve our attention and respect.  I support our artisan fisheries, but until the rest of the world catches on and ICCAT begins enforcing the changes that need to be made to save the species, I can not in good faith buy bluefin.  I will not however, condemn the U.S. fishery based on the mistakes made by other nations.