Bluefin tuna: can trade bans protect our fisheries?

Bluefin tuna
© OCEANA / LX, © OCEANA / Pepe Ceballos

A bluefin tuna trade ban, if agreed, would probably last for three years (Photo: OCEANA/Pepe Ceballos)

Atlantic bluefin tuna could be the first widely eaten species to be banned from being traded internationally. Would it work, and would it set a useful precedent for other species?

Previously seen as the domain of species we do not eat, such as tigers or elephants, a trade ban is now under consideration for a major commercial species - the Atlantic bluefin tuna.

Stocks in East Atlantic and Mediterranean fisheries have declined by at least 75 per cent since the late 1950s, according to ICCAT scientists.

The vast majority of the decline has come in the past decade, driven mainly by the international market and popularity of sushi and sashimi.

Trade ban

The much-criticised industry body tasked with managing bluefin stock, the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT), finally decided last year that a temporary trade ban was needed to prevent stocks collapsing.

However, its members, which include tuna-fishing nations like Spain and France, decided instead to lower quotas.

After a further year of decline those European countries appear to have changed their minds and are now backing calls to support a proposal for a global trade ban being made at this month’s Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).

Supporters argue that adding Atlantic bluefin tuna to the trade ban list would take away its international market, particularly Japan, as the catches would only be allowed for domestic consumption or consumption within the EU.

Food or endangered?

The campaign group Oceana says it is time to recognise commercial fish stocks like bluefin not as food but as an endangered species being traded around the world.

It says a decision in favour of a temporary ban would be ‘an historic precedent for marine conservation’, but one likely to be strongly opposed by Japan, which has already reportedly been lobbying North African countries to vote against the proposal.

Unloading frozen tuna carcasses from a Japanese boat in Las Palmas, Spain. (Photo: OCEANA)

Gerry Leape from the Pew Environment Group says opposition from Japan and a minority of others would not be enough to stop the ban from working.

‘CITES has 175 member countries – it’s the closest thing to a global convention – so if they go to another CITES member to try and keep this market open they could be subject to sanctions from all 174 other members,’ he said.

Charles Clover, author of a book about overfishing, End of the Line, which was recently made into an award-winning documentary, says he thinks Japan and others suspected to oppose the ban, including Turkey, Algeria and Libya, will eventually agree to it.

‘If it goes through you won’t find airlines wanting to carry bluefin or ports wanting to entertain freezer vessels containing it. Also, you won’t find big Japanese corporations like Mitsubishi wanting to stick their necks out and risk boycotts by acting illegally,’ says Clover.

Illegal fishing

Greenpeace Ocean Campaigner Willie Mackenzie says even the illegal trade would become more difficult with a trade ban as there would be ‘no legal trade to cover for it’.

It is this illegal trade that has been booming in recent years, according to Raul Garcia, fisheries officer at WWF Spain.

‘More than anything, a CITES listing would take away the market for illegally-caught tuna which has been fuelled by huge international demand.

‘The illegal trade in tuna has lowered the price and flooded the market. Getting rid of this catch should bring the price back up,’ says Garcia.


Garcia adds that far from destroying their livelihoods, most of the small-scale artisan fishing fleet do not see a problem with the temporary trade ban. They will still be able to sell their catches domestically within their own countries.

‘It will be the industrial fleet that will be most affected by the ban and this is where scientists say the control is necessary,’ says Garcia.

One of those large-scale producers, the Spanish fishing company Balfego, says large producers are being punished for the activities of illegal fisheries.

‘There will be more illegal fishing than there is now if the trade ban takes place. The price will collapse which will invite fishermen to catch more to earn the same money,’ says Juan Serrano, Balfego's director-general.

French purse seiner lands bluefin tuna (Photo: OCEANA/Pepe Ceballos)

He says stronger quotas and sanctions on those exceeding their quotas should be imposed instead of a trade ban.

ICCAT failure

Greenpeace’s Willie Mackenzie says ICCAT, which is responsible for managing bluefin tuna stocks, could no longer be trusted to prevent the population collapsing.

‘CITES would not even be considering this trade ban if ICCAT had been doing its job properly,’ he says.

Clover agrees and says the Agency had presided over ‘lamentable management’ and lack of enforcement over the past decade, failing to ‘set rational scientific quotas and even to police the total allowable catches it has set’.

‘If it wants to take the management of the bluefin back from CITES, it should concentrate on doing that properly, as anything else is too challenging for it,’ he says.

But a source close to ICCAT said there was no evidence that bluefin tuna was at risk of extinction and that the furore surrounding the possible CITES listing was causing other more vulnerable species to be ignored:

‘Bluefin has had serious management troubles but not conservation issues. Putting a species that is not threatened with extinction on the CITES list will lead to problems. We have to fight to encourage all states to follow the rules but we cannot play with international conventions in this way,’ they said. 

Protecting ecosystems

Although CITES has successfully been used to protect other, less popular edible species such as sturgeon, there is scepticism about its long-term use in protecting fisheries.

Melissa Pritchard, a policy officer at the Marine Conservation Society (MCS), says restricting trade would not tackle the root problem, namely a failure to manage catches.

‘If we rely on CITES we’ll see a sequential depletion of species that starts with bluefin and then moves on to other species of tuna like yellowfin. When those run out people will move onto a fish that tastes like tuna, such as swordfish,’ she says.

Pritchard says this is what happened when cod stocks became dangerously low and people moved onto Alaskan pollock, now also under threat.

‘We look at fish as a resource rather than something that’s part of an ecosystem. What we need is a totally new way of managing fisheries: an ecosystems approach.

‘This would mean that we account for, and manage, everything affected by the fishery, not just the species itself.’

Useful links

UK joins calls for ban on Atlantic bluefin tuna trade
The UK has joined growing European support for Atlantic Bluefin tuna to be declared an endangered species to prevent collapse
How can we have fish tomorrow? Ask the past
Dismissed initially as a good storyteller but nothing more, environmental historian Poul Holm has mapped the history of marine animals in such detail that it is having profound impacts on our current understanding of the oceans
Is this the future of fish farming?
Inside vast, 360-sided, 7000 cubic metre underwater cages off the coast of Panama, marine biologist Brian O'Hanlon is trying to solve some of the problems with large-scale aquaculture
Selling Indonesia's coast for cheap prawns and profit
In an exclusive investigation, the Ecologist Film Unit reveals the impact of Indonesia's plans to privatise its entire 90,000 km coastline
Atlantic Rising: State of the fishing industry in Ghana
Unsustainable fishing practices and declining catches are forcing Ghana to start importing fish

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