A Short Season for Big Fish

In case you blinked, here's a quick update: On May 30, the European Union announced that France and Spain reached their purse seine quota for bluefin for the year in just two weeks. Purse seine vessels from the two countries have been called back to their ports and are not allowed to catch bluefin again until next year's fishing season resumes. This news is not surprising given the recent history of the fishery. Importantly, it was an incredibly high level of fishing pressure, and not a healthy, abundant population of bluefin, that caused this early closure. Highlighting the need for careful enforcement of catch limits, the EU should be commended for quickly closing the fishery in these two countries when reports indicated the quota had been met.

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.

It is an important time for bluefin...there is an opportunity to finally address some of the decades-old failures of bluefin tuna management.Lee Crockett, Director of U.S. Ocean Conservation, The Pew Charitable Trusts

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.

This article originally ran at newswatch.nationalgeographic.com.

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