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EDITORIAL: Time for a quota increase for western bluefin

Summertime is when the thoughts of people in the bluefin business turn to fishing.  Chasing bluefin is potentially profitable, true.  But on that perfect day when the fish are biting or skimming the surface in a harpooner’s sight, it also can be a tremendous rush, the thrill of a lifetime.

Still, the tangled mess of international bluefin tuna management is rarely far from the minds of industry people.  And now, after decades of costly quota cuts and divisive wrangling over science and illegal fishing comes word that the eastern Atlantic/Mediterranean stock – now affirmed to play a key role in abundance here in the western Atlantic – has made a remarkable recovery.

editorial-SHThat means eastern Atlantic countries are sure to be vying for a significant quota increase at the 2014 meeting of the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) in November.  And, if they get one, the US government should do everything in its power to ensure that the western Atlantic fishery gets one, too.

In a paper published in February, Jean-Marc Fromentin, a respected bluefin tuna scientist with the Mediterranean and Tropical Halieutic (fishing) Research Center in Sète, France, observed that the 2012 stock assessment indicated that the status of the eastern stock has greatly improved and that rebuilding to ICCAT targets could be achieved by 2022 – not only under the current 13,400-metric-ton quota but also at catch levels nearly twice that amount.

Fromentin was bold in discussing this remarkable turnaround.  Basically, he suggested that bluefin are incredibly resilient and that once eastern countries finally began reining in their out-of-control fisheries starting in 2009, the population was quick to recover.  And, he argued that that recovery was delayed because various lobbies exploited uncertainties in the science to advance their own agendas.

Ultimately, Fromentin concluded that a scientific quota should be part of the ICCAT management program and that establishing such a quota is possible given today’s better understanding of complex bluefin biology, genetics, and stock structure.

The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) has an intractable record of opposing any quota increases for the western Atlantic, citing the “high/low recruitment scenario” uncertainty embedded in vintage US bluefin science.  The high recruitment scenario assumes that the western Atlantic stock can be rebuilt to levels last seen in the early 1970s, while the “low recruitment scenario” assumes that the stock will remain pretty close to recent levels and was never as seriously overfished as NMFS has long maintained.  Although ICCAT’s scientific committee has stated repeatedly that there is no strong evidence to favor one scenario over the other, NMFS has continued to take negotiating positions in support of the high recruitment scenario and overruled any efforts to increase or even maintain western Atlantic quotas.

According to the American Bluefin Tuna Association (ABTA), this year’s ICCAT meeting is a real crossroads for the future of the US fishery.  Due to stock mixing, the fish taken in the eastern Atlantic affects the availability of fish in the western Atlantic.  If the east successfully negotiates a quota increase and the west fails to do so, we will be back to square one with the east outstripping the western fishery.

ABTA is instead supporting a balanced approach of proportional quota increases on both sides of the Atlantic if there are any increases at all.  We agree.  It’s time for the western Atlantic fishery, which includes US fishermen, to reap the benefit of these long years of sacrifice.  /cfn/

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