Other Environmental Themes

Last Chance

Atlantic Bluefin tuna are, by all accounts, magnificent creatures that have captivated humans for millennia. Possessing powerful, sleek bodies adorned with flashes of iridescent blue, bluefin can traverse the ocean in mere weeks, earning the moniker “Olympians of the seas.” Aristotle, reportedly, was fascinated by their movements; Homer chronicled the pursuit of bluefin in The Odyssey. Their figures have graced the canvasses of Salvador Dali and earned a place on Roman coins. Their meat is also valued as a prime delicacy for sushi lovers, and therein lies the rub. A single bluefin tuna, which can weigh more than 1,000 pounds, often fetches more than $10,000 in today’s market, and that financial incentive has contributed to the fish’s demise. Stocks of bluefin born in the western Atlantic have been hardest hit, declining 80 percent since the 1970s.

The problem stems from overfishing, particularly of the young tuna who’ve had little if any time to reproduce. Efforts to manage bluefin fisheries by the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) have been largely ineffectual. U.S., Canadian, and Japanese fishermen have, for the most part, abided by the limits set by ICCAT. But quotas are wildly exceeded, by tens of thousands of tons each year, in the central and eastern Atlantic and in the Mediterranean. This illicit harvest has paradoxically taken its greatest toll on western-born bluefin, including a high percentage of juveniles, which mix freely with the eastern population in the open seas.

Regulators have long maintained they lack the information needed to make judicious management decisions, but science is now filling the gaps, showing where the fish go in their transoceanic journeys and where they most need safe harbor. Researchers are using electronic tags to track the movements of hundreds of bluefins in studies undertaken by the University of New Hampshire’s Large Pelagics Research Lab, its collaborators, and other investigators in the field. Among other findings, the New Hampshire team has learned that rather than sticking to known spawning grounds in the Gulf of Mexico and the Mediterranean, the tuna may also be breeding in previously-unidentified sites that warrant urgent protection.

Carl Safina of the Blue Ocean Institute is not waiting for ICCAT to fix the problem, since he considers the organization “a big part of the problem.” His group, along with Earthjustice, has sued the National Marine Fisheries Service to prohibit “longline fishing” in the Gulf of Mexico during the April-to-June bluefin spawning season. (This approach employs lines with baited hooks that may stretch 25 miles long.) Safina also advocates a three-year fishing moratorium among eastern Atlantic nations to allow stocks to rebuild. “Archaeological evidence shows that people have been fishing bluefin tuna in the Mediterranean for at least 9,000 years,” he says. “A three-year break is not too much to ask to ensure that bluefin are around for the next 9,000.”