Last chance to save the bluefin tuna

Posted: 2 February 2010

Imports of endangered bluefin tuna into the United States for the sushi trade are contributing to the collapse of the population in the Mediterranean and Eastern Atlantic, according to a report based on official figures.

Diners in the eastern United States could be forgiven for concluding that the bluefin tuna on their plates was from the small but relatively well managed population that runs up the East coast from its spawning grounds in the Gulf of Mexico.

However, official export figures from the European Union, compiled by an investigator for the film, The End of the Line, which has a screening at the United Nations General Assembly in New York omorrow, show that up to 3,341 tons of bluefin was exported from the EU to the United States between 1998 and June last year.

In 2008 the US was a net importer of bluefin, importing 360 metric tons from around the world, notably the Mediterranean, compared with the 266 metric tons that were caught domestically, according to official figures. Such is the value of bluefin - nearly $9 a pound on average - that the total trade in the United States is worth nearly $100 million a year.

Scientists from the Atlantic tuna commission, ICCAT, last year called for no more than 8,500 tons of tuna to be caught next year in the Mediterranean and Eastern Atlantic to prevent the collapse of the population, however, representatives from the official delegations to ICCAT voted for quotas to be set at 13,500 tons this year - fulfilling an unbroken record in recent decades of setting quotas above scientific advice.

French pledge

The EU is currently split on whether to support a proposal by Monaco to ban all international trade in bluefin tuna by listing it under Appendix 1 of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). A U-turn by Italy to support an Appendix 1 listing has placed pressure on France's President Sarkozy to honour a pledge he made last summer to do the same, and on Spain, which currently holds the EU presidency and has the highest quota percentage among Member States of CITES.

Charles Clover, author of the book, The End of the Line, on which the film is based, said: "I think people in the United States tend to think of the collapse of the bluefin as a tragedy going on a long way off. In fact, they could be helping save a whole species by calling on the US Government to listing the bluefin on Cites Appendix 1 and insisting that the restaurants they eat at do not serve tuna from the collapsing and rampantly overfished Eastern Atlantic and Mediterranean population."

Michael Hirshfield, chief scientist for Oceana said, "It is clear that international trade is driving the bluefin tuna to extinction, so it's high time for CITES to take tough action to help save it. We urge the United States to demonstrate its conservation leadership by supporting an Appendix 1 listing." Casson Trenor, senior markets campaigner for Greenpeace US, said: "With the upcoming CITES meeting in Doha, the United States government has an unprecedented opportunity to champion the protection of the Northern bluefin tuna. If this majestic animal is to survive, it requires foresight and dedication on the part of our leadership in Washington. It's not every day that we have the chance to stand up, raise our voices, and save an endangered species - today, however, we do have that chance. No doubt future generations of Americans will judge us on how we react to this critical issue." On Wednesday, Feb 3, a new Spanish version of The End of the Line, with a voiceover from the singer, Miguel Bosé, will have its premiere in Madrid, backed by an alliance of conservation groups and celebrities demanding that Spain, which holds the rotating presidency of the European Union and also has by far its largest fishing fleet, backs the Cites Appendix 1 listing of the bluefin tuna. A follow-up to the The End of the Line documentary, Fish2fork, a website that reviews fish restaurants for their sustainability, was launched in the United States on January 15. Its top ten restaurants included two sushi restaurants and its bottom ten included mostly sushi restaurants which serve bluefin tuna, including several in New York.

Related link:

End of the Line