Shocking facts have been revealed about the global depletion of the stock of all three bluefin tuna species in recent times. Anna Hager investigates what this means for the tuna industry and how we continue to force bluefin tuna down the path to extinction.
If you’re thinking about sitting down at your favourite sushi restaurant to indulge in a big chunk of sashimi in the near future, you might want to know a few facts about your favourite meal first, because this delicacy, bluefin tuna, is at critically low levels.
Globally, tuna is one of the most popular fish to eat. According to healthytuna.com, it is so popular that one third of all seafood consumed in America is comprised of tuna. The US and Japan also consume the largest amount of bluefin tuna at 31 percent.
Despite this, few tuna eaters are aware that the bluefin tuna species, primarily used for products such as sashimi at the higher end of the market, is actually close to extinction if we continue to consume and harvest it at current rates.
The Southern Bluefin Tuna population for example is estimated to have reduced by at least 80 percent over the past three generations.
“Over 99% of the harvest of 8,500 tonnes [Southern Bluefin only] per annum is exported, almost all to Japan,” Brian Jeffriess, CEO of the Australian Southern Bluefin Industry Association says.
The value of bluefin tuna as commercial catch goes back to ancient times, when the Greeks and Phoenicians started harvesting it, and demand soared in the 1970s, when commercial fishing made the capturing of this gentle giant much easier.
What is the plight of the bluefin tuna?
When talking about bluefin tuna, classified as one of the heaviest and largest known bony fish, it is important to consider that there are three distinctly different breeds.
Southern Bluefin Tuna (SBT), found in the Southern Hemisphere, is also the most important species to Australia’s fishing industry.
Southern Bluefin can weigh up to 200 kilograms; grow up to a size of two metres and get to the age of forty years.
The Commission for the Conservation of Southern Bluefin Tuna (CCSBT) says that SBT is mainly exported to Japan, where premium prices can be obtained due to the high fat content in the flesh.
“The SBT caught are mainly frozen at very low temperatures (-60C) and either unloaded at intermediate ports and shipped to markets in Japan or unloaded directly at markets in Japan,” the CCSBT says.
At a pace of up to 70 kilometres per hour, Pacific Bluefin Tuna are dubbed the biggest and fastest creatures of the Pacific Ocean, but haven’t been on the radar as much as their cousin, the Atlantic Bluefin Tuna.
Atlantic Bluefin is native to the western and eastern Atlantic Oceans as well as the Mediterranean Sea. According to scientists the Atlantic Bluefin breed is in the worst position out of all three.
“Atlantic Bluefin is heavily over-fished and stocks are in danger of irreversible collapse,” says Glenn Sant, Global Marine Program leader at TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade monitoring network.
Maria Jose Cornax, marine scientist from OCEANA in Spain also says: “Although Pacific and Southern Bluefin are overexploited as well; their biomass is higher than that of the Atlantic case.”
But, despite being different species, all bluefin tuna are crucially linked in their plight and need to be dealt with on a uniform basis.
“An Atlantic Bluefin tuna trade ban would have implied the necessary inclusion of the other bluefin tunas in CITES Appendix II as look-alike species, due to difficulties to differentiate processed forms of tunas because of their similarities,” Cornax says.
Despite attempts at regulation, bluefin continues down the road to extinction
The highly migratory nature of bluefin tuna and the economic importance of the species make controlling and co-ordinating an attempt to save stocks very difficult.
Sheree Glasson from the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry in Australia says that, “tuna are highly migratory. Because of this, managing tuna fisheries is co-ordinated under international agreements, through bodies known as regional fisheries management organisations.”
In recent times there have been major and mostly unsuccessful attempts to regulate the international trade of bluefin tuna.
In 2009, Malta, Cyprus, Spain, Italy, France and Greece blocked a proposed bluefin trade ban despite support from 21 other EU governments.
This came after Monaco and CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, called for Atlantic Bluefin Tuna to be put on the endangered species list.
More recently in March 2010, a CITES convention in Doha proposing an all-out ban on the export of Atlantic Bluefin resulted in a contentious battle between Asia and the West. The proposal was blocked, once again leaving the fate of the bluefin tuna uncertain.
Despite these unsuccessful efforts to secure the future of bluefin tuna, there have been some positive developments.
Although bluefin tuna trade means big business, Tamara Ward from the US Fisheries and Wildlife Service (FWS) in Virginia, says that regardless of the setbacks at Doha the conservation of Atlantic Bluefin is a high priority for America.
“We will keep fighting to ensure that fishery is managed sustainably, so that future generations may see a return to health,” she says.
In Australia, where the NSW Department of Primary Industries added the Southern Bluefin Tuna to the endangered species list, the Commonwealth Government decided to reduce Southern Bluefin fishing quotas by 23 percent to 4015 tons in June 2010.
In an attempt to protect the bluefin tuna, the European Union recently ended the official 2010 tuna season a week early; with a ban affecting the Mediterranean and eastern Atlantic, the Guardian reports.
Conservation organisations have also become aware of the situation. In January 2010 for example, the Sea Shepherd, well known for their anti-whaling efforts, have added protection of bluefin tuna to their conservation agenda. They are planning to do this mainly by interrupting illegal poachers from depleting already frail-looking stocks. This campaign however will be confined to the Mediterranean, meaning that it will only protect the Atlantic Bluefin breed.
Illegal fishing and poaching heavily contribute to the plight of Bluefin
Despite strict regulations, illegal poaching of the bluefin tuna species does nothing but add to the irreversible collapse of a once healthy stock.
Over the 22 years leading up to 2006, large scale illegal catch has depleted the Southern Bluefin stock in Southern Hemisphere waters. But poaching is a phenomenon affecting all bluefin species.
“The biggest quotas for fishing Atlantic Bluefin Tuna are held by the USA and the EU. However, in the Mediterranean particularly, there is a lot of illegal (IUU) fishing of tuna,” says Sant from TRAFFIC.
Brian Jeffriess, from the SBT Industry Association, also says that Australia recently lost large amounts of fishing quota “even though the stock problem was caused by Japan’s illegal catch”.
“This happened because Australia was trying to buy Japan’s goodwill on wider trade issues.
“What the outcome said to both the SBT industry and the wider fishing industry was that the Australian Government was prepared to sacrifice an important seafood industry to achieve a bigger trade agenda,” he says.
Tamara Ward from FWS also says that illegal fishing results in uncertainty with stock levels, which in turn can lead to overfishing of the bluefin tuna species.
“Although fishing regulations are currently in place, unsustainable quota levels and overfishing, including illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing activities, are threats to the Eastern and Western stock,” she says.
Fishing bans can have crucial effects on Australia’s fishing industry
These recent moves to cut SBT quotas due to overfishing could have detrimental effects on the local Australian fishing industry, which generates big money. And, the fishing industry says that quota cuts are not based on current data and are therefore partly unjustified.
The Australian Southern Bluefin Industry Association says that before recent quota cuts, export of Southern Bluefin reached over $300 million per annum, generating over 5,000 jobs throughout Australia. They also say that the tuna business is internationally competitive and critically important to the Eyre Peninsula’s economy – Australia’s fishing industry hub.
According to their CEO Brian Jeffriess, the quota cut in 2009 for example was based on data up to 2006. This data included the effects of large-scale illegal catch from 1985 to 2006. But, with the 2008 to 2010 data available now, they suggests a possible recovery of the stock.
“Tuna is one of the largest seafood industries in Australia, so it was a major blow,” Jeffriess says.
“It meant substantial job losses, and future uncertainty. Tuna is by far the largest employer on the Eyre Peninsula, and the tuna industry had invested in new industries such as tourism. So the impact has been not just within the tuna industry, it has been felt by every part of the Eyre Peninsula economy,” he continues.
Fishermen in the area share the sentiment that tuna stocks have recovered in the past few years. Peter Dennis from Triplebay charters in Port Lincoln says that he has received information from local fishermen that there have been sightings of large schools of tuna around the Great Australian Bight in 2010.
“It seems to be a seasonal type of thing rather than stocks running down,” he says.
Fishermen in Port Lincoln are therefore not happy to accept trade bans and quota cuts because of improvement in the numbers of bluefin sighted in recent times he continues.
“They weren’t happy with it of course. They are lobbying the government and trying to get some of the quota back because of the numbers of fish that have been sighted out there,” he says.
Glenn Sant from TRAFFIC also says that it is difficult for any industry to have to reduce the amount of fish it harvests and to still make money.
“The fact is though that unless the amount of catch is reduced overall in the fishery there will not be recovery of the stock” he says.
Despite increased efforts, no alternatives to wild fishing are currently available
In an effort to secure healthy tuna stocks for the future, countries around the world are attempting to breed bluefin tuna in captivity. The question however is whether such a migratory species, that can grow up to sizes of 450kg, can be domesticated. According to many scientists this will be near impossible but might be the only way to save the species, as our insatiable hunger for the expensive sushi and sashimi ingredient doesn’t appear to subside.
Maria Jose Cornax from OCEANA in Spain says that at the current stage of research and knowledge available, bluefin tuna cannot be bred in captivity, at least not at commercial levels.
She says that breeding bluefin in captivity “is unsustainable due to the high percentage of fish protein they need to grow.”
“For fattening one kilogram of bluefin you need around 15 to 20 kilograms of other wild fish species [like] mackerel, squid and sardines,” she continues.
A further problem is that, in most cases, the ranching of tuna involves the catching of wild tuna and fattening them in cages.
“It’s worth clarifying that all farming referred to with bluefin tuna actually catches wild stock that is then fattened for the market. Hence they do not contribute to the rebuilding of stocks,” says Sant from TRAFFIC.
“Tuna farming is officially considered as a post-harvesting practice rather than one based in direct capture and thus avoids every regional and international rule set up to manage fisheries in the Mediterranean,” he continues.
Besides wild catches and tuna farming there has been another development, which aims to rescue the tuna industry from collapse.
Last year in a world-first breakthrough, aquaculture pioneer Clean Seas Tuna Limited in conjunction with scientists from the University of the Sunshine Coast, the South Australian Research and
Development Institute (SARDI), the Fisheries Research and Development Corporation (FRDC) and the Australian Seafood Cooperative Research Centre (CRC), successfully recreated the breeding patterns of one of the world’s wildest fish, Sothern Bluefin Tuna.
“Not only have images such as these never been seen by human eyes, but the creation of these fish has been entirely dependent on human endeavour,” says Clean Seas Chairman Hagen Stehr.
In 2010 Clean Seas reports that it has completed its third consecutive annual on-shore Southern Bluefin Tuna spawning program.
“The 2009-10 spawning trials have proved to be highly successful in terms of being able to repeat spawning under controlled conditions; advance spawning commencement by two months from March to January; replicate our success in rearing fingerlings in locations up to 2,900 kilometres from Arno Bay; and extending the spawning period by six weeks to 12 weeks,” says Clean Seas Managing Director Clifford Ashby.
But, despite these efforts to breed bluefin tuna in captivity there is no indication at this stage of any contribution to rebuilding stocks now or in the near future.
“The bluefin tuna species has a biology that means that they are very easily overfished. That has to do with how long they live and how long they take to mature. In captivity that is very difficult too. In trade we don’t see bluefin that has been bred in captivity,” says Sant from TRAFFIC.
The verdict looks all but rosy
The problem is that with bluefin tuna fetching around $800 US per kilo on the Japanese market, the disappearance of this species in our oceans comes to no surprise.
Unfortunately dropping levels only seems to spark demand, with prices rising at an astronomic rate.
As of January 2010, a comprehensive global Catch Documentation (CDS) has been implemented by the CCSBT.
“All whole SBT must be tagged at the time of kill with a uniquely numbered tag and the tag must remain on the SBT until the first point of domestic sale. SBT without tags between these points must not be accepted,” says Bob Kennedy from the CCSBT.
The sad reality is that bluefin tuna is only an example of where we are driving our oceans. According to Cornax, 90 percent of our predators have already disappeared, so it is not only a matter of losing fish on our table.
“A Spanish researcher said that biodiversity is like a plane. Will it be able to fly when it is constantly losing small pieces of its engine?” Cornax says.
|The Australian Perspective: