Bluefin Tuna (BFT) are one of the fastest fish on this planet. They are similar in quickness to the cheetah. Only this is achieved by an animal that can weigh up to 1,500 pounds. BFT swim the temperate zones of the world's oceans and have the unique characteristic of being a warm-blooded fish. This allows them to inhabit areas of the ocean that are very cold.
Very few people have ever seen them while diving or snorkeling, as they typically inhabit deep waters. Monterey Bay Aquarium has several individuals in one of their exhibits, and there you can get a glimpse of how magnificent they truly are. Nature has produced a powerful rocket with fins and gills. They can reach speeds of up to 55 mph, live up to 30 years, and reach maturity at 8 years. (1) (3)
BFT are one of the top predators of the seas, they eat just about anything and travel great distances to find their prey. Through tagging programs they have been found feeding from the surface down to 3,000 feet.
There are 3 distinct populations of BFT:
- Western Atlantic Bluefin (Gulf of Mexico): Critically Endangered
- Eastern Atlantic Bluefin (Mediterranean): Endangered
- Southern Bluefin (Australia and the Indian Ocean): Critically Endangered (Extremely high risk with extinction in the wild)
One little noticed side affect of diminishing BFT are the rise in the numbers of the fish that they used to prey on. For instance, the Humbolt squid used to be found mainly in the Pacific waters off of Mexico and South America. In recent years they have been expanding their range and are now found all along the west coast of North America, all the way to Alaska. BFT used to keep their numbers in check. Humbolt squid are voracious eaters and are causing havoc with the disappearing salmon and other mid-sized fish. Divers have been harassed by them in Southern California.
It is estimated that a BFT has a one in four million chance of reaching adulthood. (1) But with humans insatiable appetite for their flesh, their chances are even less than that.
Japan consumes 80% of BFT that are caught every year. They employ their own fishing vessels as well as buy from the world's fishing fleets, whether legally or illegally caught. One fish sold for $173,000 US recently. With that kind of financial incentive, it is impossible to expect common sense to reign. Governments have proven to be incapable of putting a stop to this carnage due to the deep pockets of the fishing industry, and corruption is rampant.
The governing body that sets limits on the amount and location of tuna to be caught is called the International Commission for the Conservation of Tuna (ICCAT). This commission is as effective in regulating the killing of tuna as the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) was in overseeing the overfishing of Cod off the Newfoundland coast.
You may recall that Sea Shepherd successfully chased a fleet of Cuban trawlers off the Grand Banks in 1994, for which Captain Paul Watson was arrested and put on trial for interfering with commercial fishing. Years later he was acquitted, but it was too late for the cod. The catches were down so low (1% of historic levels) (3) that the DFO had to declare the fishery closed, saying that they would re-open it in two years. Now here we are 15 years later and the cod population has still not recovered, and the fishery is still closed to commercial fishing.
Carl Safina, who wrote extensively about the plight of BFT in his book "Song for the Blue Ocean," appropriately called ICCAT the International Conspiracy to Catch All Tuna.
Despite repeated warnings from their own scientists, ICCAT consistently refuses to reduce the amount of Tuna that are allowed to be taken. At their most recent meeting in July 2009, they voted to put NO restrictions on the catch of Atlantic Bluefin tuna. It is estimated that these fish are at 2 % of their population size from 1940. (2) This is a quote from an article put out by Reuters after this meeting:
"ICCAT estimates the current level of fishing is three times higher than it should be, threatening to cut the spawning population to a fifth of its size in 1970."
BFT are caught by just about any fishing method imaginable: longline, hook and line, fish pens, gill nets, drift nets, and purse seine nets. The Mediterranean population is the one that is in the worst shape. There are 23 countries that the fish migrate past, and each one has their commercial and recreational fishermen hunting them.
In the case of BFT, there can be no distinction between commercial and recreational fishing, since even individual anglers promptly sell their victims to the highest bidder, with the Japanese providing the ice packed coffin and a quick one way flight to Japan.
Europeans have been hunting BFT as far back as the Roman Empire. They were so abundant that fish traps were constructed in the Mediterranean, all along their migration path. You could say the entire Med is one big fish trap. There is only a nine mile gap between Spain and Gibraltar. Any marine organism that migrates out of the Med has to traverse through a gauntlet of hooks, nets, fish pens and harpoons that are strategically placed to assure little or no fish make it out alive.
This is not only tragic for the Eastern BFT, but the Western populations suffer as well. Through satellite tracking it has been found that these two populations swim together, with some making the trek from one side of the Atlantic to the other, then back, in one year. So, that means even if the quota's being set by ICCAT were being enforced in the Med (which they are not), they would still be catching animals from the Western population.
Don't be fooled into thinking that these "quotas" are being enforced. There is a lot of illegal and unreported fishing of BFT. It has been estimated that 50% of the BFT catch is unreported. (1)
Libya has opened up their 1,300 mile coastline to over 200 fishing vessels from all nations that will take a full 60% of all the BFT taken in the Med: 35,000 tons! The animals will be towed to fish pens (fish farms) in Spain, Italy, Greece, Croatia, Turkey and Egypt. Most of this will be illegal, amounting to 200% more than the scientific community deems a sustainable take.
This brings up another issue: fish farms. These are farms in name only; they do not "grow" anything but profits. The animals are taken from the wild, held in densely packed enclosures until they are fat enough to be killed. Fish farming has a proven track record of causing many environmental ills.
Because the animals are in such tight quarters they are susceptible to diseases. To protect them from this, the "farmers" put high doses of antibiotics into the food that they feed the fish. This then accumulates in the bodies of the animals which are then passed on to the consumer in the form of many cancer causing illnesses.
These "farms" are just like feed lots that we use for cows and pigs. They become highly polluted from all the excrement, excess food accumulates directly below the pens, and parasites become rampant. This results in dead zones in, under, and around the sites. In addition any wild animals that swim past these areas become infected with the parasites.
As an example, it has been found that sea lice proliferate around salmon "farms", which are typically placed where oceans and rivers converge, exactly where migrating salmon travel. All it takes to kill a young salmon is three or more sea lice. The mortality rate in these areas is as high as 95%. With many being found with upwards of 25 sea lice on them. The lice literally suck the life out of the young salmon.
"Farming" is a very wasteful way to utilize the seas. To raise one pound of salmon you need to feed them three pounds of wild fish. For cod the ratio is 1:5. For BFT the rate is an astronomical, 1:20. (1)
We will not "farm" our way out of this dilemma. The true way to allow the oceans to rebound is to establish Marine Protected Areas (MPA). This means zones where no fishing is allowed. There are numerous examples of how quickly these zones react to no take.
One example can be found in Scotland. In 2000 they created a no take zone of about three square miles. There was an adjacent area where there were no fishing restrictions. Scientists studied both areas for 7 years. Within 5 years the lobster population had grown by 700% within the no take zone. This resulted in not only more lobster, but individual lobster size had increased by up to 300%. At the end of the 7 year study, the lobsters had started to migrate out of their area and there the lobster fishermen had laid their traps.
As would be expected, the area with no restrictions had no increase.
Even in area's where there is reduced fishing effort, there are profound results. The area of the George's Banks has seen a 500% increase in Haddock, 1,400% increase in Scallops and 50% more cod. This happened over a 6 year period just by closing it to trawlers and dredgers. The results would be much more substantive if this were an MPA. (2)
In 1993 a voluntary management system was agreed to by Australia, New Zealand, and Japan to protect the Southern Bluefin Tuna. This was called the Convention for the Conservation of Southern Bluefin Tuna (CCSBT). In time, Korea and Taiwan joined the group. Yearly meetings were held, where stock assessments were discussed and quota's established. Then in '98 Japan started an "experimental research" program that allowed them to take an additional 1,400 tons. Sound familiar? Does scientific research whaling ring a (dinner) bell?
In 2006 it was revealed that Japanese, Taiwanese, and Thai fishermen had been taking over twice the agreed to quota, for the preceding 20 years....that means that the Japanese delegation to the CCSBT had been sitting in those yearly meetings lying through their smiling teeth. It is conservatively estimated that this was worth $8 billion dollars.
Does anyone think we can believe the Japanese claims of only killing 950 whales in the Southern Antarctic, or the 30,000 dolphins and whales they kill in their own waters? It turns out that Japan sends the same delegates to ICCAT that are seen at the IWC meetings. Countries will usually send two or three representatives to these ICCAT meetings, Japan sends 49.
It has now become apparent that we, as global citizens, need to take the lead in putting an end to the high seas pillaging that has been going on for far too long. It is time for us to use our technology to monitor all fishing vessels, the ports where they land, and the stores and restaurants that sell the fish. The oceans do NOT belong to the fishermen: they belong to all of us, including future generations.
It is not enough to stop eating Bluefin Tuna: we need to vilify anyone who does. We would not tolerate someone sitting down to eat a gorilla steak. We stopped the proliferation of fur farms by showing our outrage at anyone who wore a fur coat, sometimes going so far as to throw "blood" on the perpetrator.
It's time to start making people feel the heat when they sit down to eat the last of a noble breed of fish. I urge you to find out what restaurants are serving BFT in your area; get to know who the high profile people are that are eating there. Then get on the internet and let the world know who they are. Get them up on MySpace, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and any other mass circulating sites you can think of.
We are down to the last 3% that existed just 20 years ago. It's time for a sea change.
(1) Tuna: Love, Death and Mercury. Richard Ellis.
(2) The Unnatural History of the Sea. Callum Roberts.
(3) Song for the Blue Ocean. Carl Safina.
(4) The End of the Line. Charles Clover.