By Jonathan Hemmerdinger for Saving Seafood
Commercial bluefin tuna fishermen and the lawmakers who represent them in Washington are sparring with federal regulators over a statement made in Paris last week by the top US oceans official.
On Nov. 19, Jane Lubchenco, head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, told Reuters that the US government supports cuts in the commercial fishing quota for bluefin tuna in both the western and Eastern Atlantic Ocean.
"When there is uncertainty in science we believe that it is important to err on the side of caution. We believe that it is appropriate therefore to seek lower TACs (total allowable catches) for bluefin tuna for both sides of the Atlantic," said Lubchenco, who was attending a meeting of the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas, the international body that sets catch limits on bluefin tuna.
Bluefin are a highly migratory species that range from the Canary Islands near the coast of Africa to the Gulf of Mexico and are prized by the Japanese for sushi and sashimi. There are two main bluefin tuna fisheries; the Eastern Atlantic fishery, which includes the Mediterranean Sea and is where most tuna are caught, and the Western Atlantic fishery, which includes US and Canadian fishermen.
Lubchenco's comment sparked a sharp response from US fishermen, who say fisheries officials have failed to recognize that the sacrifices of US bluefin tuna fishermen in recent years have helped rebuild stocks in the Western Atlantic.
And they say US fishermen have long abided by strict catch limits despite rampant overfishing in the Eastern Atlantic by foreign vessels feeding a booming tuna aquaculture industry. Boats fishing in the Eastern Atlantic and Mediterranean hail from countries such as France, Italy, Morocco, Libya, Tunisia and Malta.
"We have paid the price to restore this resource. And we ask for the government to reward US fishermen," said Rich Ruais, executive director of the American Bluefin Tuna Association. "We are coming off a period of very painful, incredible abuse by the Eastern Atlantic and European community."
US Lawmakers also criticized Lubchenco's comment.
"By suggesting that reductions ... are warranted in both the eastern and western Atlantic, NOAA is effectively selling out US fishermen who for years have adhered to strict catch limits and conservation measures now proven to have boosted the health of the bluefin population," said Maine Sen. Olympia Snowe (R) in a statement. "Our fishermen operate under the world's strictest management regime, and their sacrifices are largely responsible for the optimism found in the most recent scientific assessment for Western Atlantic bluefin."
By some estimates, Western Atlantic bluefin tuna stocks are improving. According to the ICATT report, one scientific model shows bluefin in the Western Atlantic have more than a 90 percent chance of recovering even if the Western Atlantic quota is increased to 2,000 tons.
Based on that estimate, the industry and lawmakers are seeking more quota.
"Our quota and other conservation restrictions are paying off ... We believe the US delegation should fight to increase the TAC in the west to 2,250 metric tons, which will still allow for a very high probability of success within the time frame outlined by the plan," said a Nov. 7 ABTA letter to the US ICCAT delegation.
Ten lawmakers echoed ABTA's stance in a Nov. 18 letter to Lubchenco.
"We wish to request that the US delegation pursue a modest, yet scientifically justifiable increase in the total allowable catch of Western Atlantic bluefin tuna," said the letter, which was signed by Senators Snowe, Collins, Shaheen, and Scott Brown, and Representatives Frank, Michaud, Pingree, Lynch, Tierney, and Delahunt.
According to ICCAT's 2010 report, fishermen in the Eastern Atlantic are estimated to have landed some 61,000 tons of bluefin tuna in 2007, more than double their quota.
The agency believes catches in the region were also much higher than allowed in the preceding years, due to "substantial under-reporting" of landings. The report did note that monitoring and enforcement have resulted in a "substantial decrease in the catch" in 2008 and 2009.
Meanwhile, US and Canadian fishermen have been restricted to substantially lower catch levels, have largely fished within their quotas. The 2009 Western Atlantic total allowable catch was 1,900 tons; in 2010, the limit dropped to 1,800 tons.
And US fishermen say foreign overfishing directly impacts their livelihoods. That's because bluefin tuna are highly migratory, and many travel across the ocean, mingling between the eastern and western stocks, according to ICCAT.
"Fishing in Mediterranean has an impact on the western Atlantic. We can't rebuild the west all ourselves," said Ruais. "We have been spinning our wheels making great economic sacrifices, but have been handicapped."
Despite support from Washington, Ruais isn't optimistic that US fishermen will see an increase in quota.