FACT OR FICTION: Bluefin Tuna and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES)

Posted on May 29, 2010

What is CITES?

CITES is an acronym for the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, an international treaty intended to prohibit or strictly regulate the commercial exploitation of badly depleted species, and in some cases to prevent such exploitation from driving a species to extinction.
Why should bluefin tuna be given CITES protection?
Bluefin tuna populations on both sides of the Atlantic have crashed.  The international body that has the primary responsibility for managing the bluefin resource, the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) has historically shirked its responsibility to manage the bluefin in accordance with scientific recommendations, but has instead heeded the demands of eastern-hemisphere nations to keep harvests unsustainably high in order to benefit the fishing industry.  ICCAT has also been unable to rein in chronic overharvest and illegal fishing operations that further drive down bluefin populations.  The greatest impetus for the continuing overharvest is the lucrative foreign market, most particularly in Japan, which pays fishermen far more than they could obtain locally.  A listing on CITES’ Appendix 1 would outlaw international trade in bluefin, and thus remove much of the motivation for overharvest.
But didn’t ICCAT follow the scientific advice at their latest meeting, and act to reduce bluefin harvest in 2010 and beyond?
Not exactly.   In its efforts to establish a recommended quota for bluefin, the scientists have to make a number of assumptions with respect to things such as age at maturity, the average productivity of mature fish, how quickly the stocks might rebuild under different harvest scenarios, etc., and there is significant disagreement as to what such assumptions should be.  Ultimately, the Standing Committee on Research and Statistics recommended that the 2010 quota for the Eastern stock (eastern Atlantic and Mediterranean) fall somewhere between 8,500 and 15,000 metric tons, but it also warned that, even at 8,500 metric tons, there is a 70% chance that, even by 2019, the spawning stock biomass would remain below 15%.  In addition, the SCRS recommended that all fishing be prohibited during the time when bluefin spawned.  However, ICCAT failed to close the fishery during the spawning period, and settled on a 13,500 metric ton quota, which was near the high end of the suggested range and would clearly do little to recover the spawning stock.  ICCAT also agreed to set catch limits for the 2011 through 2013 fishing years at a level which would have at least a 60% chance of rebuilding the stock by 2022, but there is no guarantee that quotas will be so set, as the language adopted this past November is not binding on the Commission that must act to set any new limits on harvest next fall, and given their track record it would be no surprise to see higher harvests ultimately adopted.  A number of people involved in the process, including individuals advising CCA, speculate that ICCAT took a somewhat more conservative position at Recife last fall in an attempt to derail the effort to have bluefin listed under CITES, and that if the threat of a CITES listing fades later this year, ICCAT will renege on the 2009 agreement and again increase quotas.
Even if the Eastern Stock has been overfished, why should the Western Stock be subject to a CITES listing, when Canadian and American fishermen have generally conformed to the ICCAT decisions?
Just because the Western Stock is not currently subject to overfishing doesn’t mean that it is not badly overfished, and hovering on the brink of collapse.  There is no question that the number of Western Stock fish has declined sharply since the 1970s, and even in the ‘70s the number of bluefin had begun to slip below historic norms.  There is little evidence that the stock has begun to rebuild.  Thus, a CITES listing could only benefit Western Stock bluefin.  Also, the best evidence indicates that bluefin tuna can, and often do, cross the Atlantic.  Although the Eastern Stock, which spawns in the Mediterranean, and the Western Stock, which spawns in the Gulf of Mexico, are clearly separate stocks of fish which can be distinguished in the laboratory, there is no way for a fishermen to tell them apart at boatside.  The latest scientific evidence shows that it is likely that about half of the bluefin caught by U.S. anglers and commercial harevesters were Eastern Stock fish, and even with the decline in the Eastern Stock, such fish are undoubtedly still being killed. Thus, in order for a CITES listing to effectively protect Eastern Stock bluefin – and begin to restore abundance of the species throughout the Atlantic - it must be extended to all bluefin in the northern Atlantic region.
If bluefin are listed under CITES, won’t that mean that they’re an “endangered species” and that no one could fish for them?
Absolutely not.  “Endangered species,” as that term is generally used in the United States, refers to species that are “listed” under the Endangered Species Act because they are in imminent danger of extinction.  The Endangered Species Act is a federal law passed by the US Congress and administered by the US Fish and Wildlife Service.  A species listed under ESA is given broad protections, cannot normally be harvested, and must ultimately be subject to a recovery plan designed to rebuild the population to safe levels.  CITES, on the other hand, is an international treaty which is solely concerned with protecting species at risk from commercial exploitation at the international level.  It has no effect on the domestic harvest of a species (including at-sea harvest within a nation’s exclusive economic zone), and even permits the sale of such species within the nation where it is harvested.  There is no requirement that a species listed on CITES Annex 1 also be listed under the ESA.
How will US anglers on the East Coast be affected if bluefin are listed under CITES?
They will not be affected at all.  A CITES listing will not prohibit US anglers from fishing for, or harvesting, bluefin in US waters.  And since recreational fishermen, by definition, do not sell their catch, restrictions on international trade will have no impact on them.  If CITES affects anglers at all, such effect will be positive, as its prohibition on international sale will probably reduce commercial harvest, and thus make more bluefin available to the public. 
That’s fine for anglers, but why should our commercial fishery be shut down?
A CITES listing will not shut down the US commercial bluefin fishery, although it will prohibit US commercial fishermen from exporting its catch.  However, what most people don’t realize is that the United States is a net importer of bluefin tuna.  While American commercial fishermen do ship prime bluefin tuna to Japan, where they can get the best price, American restaurants import a lot of bluefin, often lower-priced, pen-raised Eastern Stock fish, for the growing domestic sushi market.  If bluefin are listed under CITES, US commercial fishermen will still be able to sell their fish to US markets, where it would replace the Eastern Stock fish that could no longer be imported.
If that’s true, why are some spokesmen for both commercial and recreational fishermen opposing the CITES listing?
It’s all about Japan, and the prices paid there for the best tuna.  While international economic conditions have caused prices to fall from the high levels of a few years ago, the Japanese market still pays the highest prices in the world for tuna, and commercial fishermen are loath to lose their most lucrative market.  The question of why “recreational fishing” advocates would oppose a CITES listing has much the same answer.  For while recreational fishermen, fishing under an Angling Category permit, may not legally sell their tuna, there are a lot of part-time commercial fishermen in the Northeast who fish from sportfishing boats and catch their fish on rods and reels, but hold General Category permits, which allows them to sell their catch.  Charter and party boats, which fish under a Charter/Headboat Category permit, are also allowed to sell their catch. 
It should be noted that the Coastal Conservation Association and The Billfish Foundation are ardent supporters of a CITES listing, and that International Game Fish Association President Rob Kramer has said that a CITES listing for bluefin “means only good things for recreational fishermen.” 
What would have to happen for bluefin tuna to be protected under CITES?
The next meeting of the Conference of the Parties to CITES is meeting in Doha, Qatar, in March.  For bluefin to be listed under the Convention, two-thirds of the contracting parties must vote in favor of such action.  Whether that will happen is very much open to doubt.  While the bluefin has staunch supporters in the international community, Japan and the Mediterranean fishing nations will undoubtedly lead a strong opposition to a listing.  In order for the bluefin to have any chance at all, conservation advocates must, at the least, mount an equally strong campaign.  To date, the United States has not firmly committed itself to any course of action, and US leadership is undoubtedly crucial if the listing effort is to have any chance at all—which is why the US commercial tuna industry and its allies have engaged in a comprehensive and sometimes misleading campaign aimed at affecting US public opinion and ultimately US policy.
What will happen if bluefin are not listed under CITES?
Predicting the future is always an uncertain thing, but if we are to gauge the future the experiences of the past, it is likely that ICCAT will continue to set quotas too high to permit the bluefin to recover, and perhaps too high to even maintain the status quo.  In the Mediterranean and eastern Atlantic, fishermen will continue to exceed even those liberal quotas, under-report harvest and engage in “pirate” fishing activities that will increase the kill of bluefin far beyond sustainable levels.  As a result, in the not-very-distant future, the Eastern Stock is likely to collapse, become commercially extinct, and perhaps fall to a level from which recovery will be very difficult, if not impossible.  In the western Atlantic, fisherman, particularly in Canada, will kill most of the remaining giant bluefin, which represent the remnant reproductive capacity of the stock.  With those fish gone, and few younger fish growing out to take their place, the Western Stock, already poised at the brink of collapse, will also likely fall past the point of commercial extinction, and perhaps past the point of no return.

Issues: Bluefin Tuna