Time to Save the Tuna

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Atlantic bluefin tuna are one of the most remarkable fish in the sea. Their amazing biology allows them to dive down to 1,000m and race through the water at extraordinary speeds, migrating thousands of kilometres across the ocean each year. Yet, today, overfishing – some of it illegal, unregulated and unreported – has taken an enormous toll.

Many of the world's foremost marine scientists now believe that populations of Atlantic bluefin are on the brink of collapse (pdf). In fact, recent studies by fisheries scientists show that the species has declined more than 80% since 1970. Efforts at protection, though, continue to fall short.

Fuelled largely by the lucrative global market in sushi and sashimi, the high value of bluefin has placed significant political pressure on those responsible for managing global tuna populations. When it has counted most, the international community has allowed short-term profits to trump the long-term health of our oceans. One notable example happened this spring at the 2010 meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).

Every year, billions of plants and animals are taken from the wild and sold as food, pets, souvenirs and medicines. CITES was adopted in the 1970s to help balance the needs of commerce and conservation – ensuring that trade in animal products doesn't endanger a species' very existence. At its heart is a rigorous scientific review process that provides governments with objective information to evaluate when overexploitation merits international protection.

However, when a proposal was submitted to CITES last March to protect bluefin, it was stopped cold, a victim of political games and backroom deals that even reached national news media. Despite support from the CITES Secretariat and governments including the US, Norway and the member states of the European Union, the proposal was defeated. Years of science, backed by leading researchers and international organisations outlining the desperate need to protect Atlantic bluefin, were simply disregarded.

In the wake of the defeat of the bluefin CITES proposal, representatives from the countries that had maneuvered to prevent a responsible decision put forth an excuse. They argued that the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) – one of the globe's largest and oldest regional fishery management organisations – should be the body to respond to the crisis facing the great fish, even though it has consistently failed in the past.

During 17-27 November, ICCAT will convene in Paris for its annual meeting, giving leaders the opportunity to rise to the challenge, demonstrate responsible leadership and save this wonder of the deep. It is time for ICCAT to heed the warnings of scientists and take decisive action by suspending the fishery for Atlantic bluefin tuna until strong management and enforcement measures are in place, and the species shows signs of recovery. National governments and international fishery management organisations would then need to work to end mismanagement, as well as illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing. Additionally, as a global insurance policy, ICCAT should agree to prohibit taking bluefin in their spawning grounds, in the Mediterranean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico.

We cannot continue to empty our oceans without consequence. If ICCAT fails to act, the bluefin tuna will face total collapse.