GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

September 28, 2012

Bluefin bounce back in sea

Scientists surprised by recovery

By Richard Gaines
Staff Writer

---- — Efforts to conserve giant bluefin tuna in the Mediterranean, keyed to protecting juveniles, are working, according to a report in a leading Spanish newspaper.

The report focused on a draft study by a committee of the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tuna, or ICCAT, and was published last Friday in El Pais, Spain’s largest circulation daily. A synopsis of the lengthy article was also posted on the website atuna.com.

The news is especially encouraging because the U.S. and other Western Hemisphere nations for years have followed what is considered responsible policies only to see the Mediterranean bluefin — which mix with western Atlantic stocks — captured young, penned up and bulked up with food the way geese are force-fed to produce the best foie gras before slaughter.

El Pais’s article has quickly gained international attention for the optimistic findings by the panel of ICCAT.

World Wildlife Foundation, which helped craft the Mediterranean tuna conservation plan, said it “welcomes this good news.”

Commercial and recreational fishing for bluefin on Stellwagen Bank and Georges Bank is based in Gloucester, which is the backdrop for the reality TV show “Wicked Tuna” on the National Geography channel. There are about 4,100 federally permitted tuna fishermen in the U.S., concentrated in Massachusetts and Maine.

Conservation advocate-authors and many environmental non-government organizations have proclaimed the imminent demise of bluefin tuna, the purported victim of profligate human nature and its love of the dark, maroon flesh as sushi and sashimi, a development emanating from Japan, that has proved nearly universal in the post war years.

In May 2011, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration rejected a petition by the Center for Biological Diversity to put bluefin on the endangered species list.

“It may be too early to say we’re out of the woods,” said the center’s oceans and senior attorney director, Myoko Sakashita. “We’re curious about the findings of the Western assessment,” which is to be released at a five-day meeting of ICCAT’s Standing Committee on Research and Statistics. The meeting begins Monday in Madrid.

The committee report, which was discussed over a week in September during final drafting before formal submission, surprisingly found the Mediterranean conservation plan has been successful.

One of the most notorious bluefin ranching operations in the Mediterranean was controlled by the family of the late Col. Moammar Gadhafi of Libya.

“Prior to 2006, said Rich Ruais, executive director of the American Bluefin Tuna Association, “the East was like the wild West, and heading toward the last buffalo hunt.” That was the year ICCAT began trying to get the Mediterranean harvest under control.

It slashed quotas of eastern Mediterranean stock from 32,000 metric tons to 12,900 metric tons and put a ban on netting fish under 64 pounds.

Giants can weigh more than 1,000 pounds; in Gloucester in August, the grand prize winner of a Cape Ann tournament weighed 582 pounds.

“Since 2008, there has been a significant reduction in the reported catches, in line with more restrictive quotas,” the ICCAT committee was quoted by El Pais as reporting, adding that “there are methodological uncertainties.”

“All the models applied by the group show a clear recovery of the bluefin spawning biomass, but the speed and extent of this upward trend are still very uncertain, the newspaper quoted the committee’s finding ... With the recovery plan,the European fleet has stopped catching 1 million juveniles each year,” the committee was said to conclude. “Just this sole measure has had a huge impact on the stock.”

Molly Lutcavage, director and research professor at University of Massachusetts-Amherst’s Large Pelagics Research Center at Hodkings Cove, in Gloucester’s Bay View neighborhood, counseled caution until a longer period of data becomes available. “Stock assessment scientists look at trends, and one year, one assessment is not sufficient information to confirm the stock trajectory as yet,” she said.

Ruais also preached caution, but noted that “they are targeting the larger fish now, so you’re seeing good stuff happening, and more survival of the smaller fish.”

Madrid’s El Pais reported that from the mid-1990s through 2007, real catches of bluefin in the Mediterranean were much higher than declared and could have reached 50,000 metric tons to 61,000 metric tons. The quota is now at 12,900 metric tons.

The quota for the Western Atlantic bluefin is a fraction of that — 1,750 metric tons, which was achieved after NOAA administrator Jane Lubchebnco at the ICCAT meeting in Paris, volunteered to reduce the U.S. allocation by 50 metric tons. The U.S. got 923 metric tons, of which 44 percent or 406 metric tons was allocated to general category permit-holders — mostly fishermen who work other fisheries along with bluefin.

Richard Gaines may be contacted at 978-283-7000 x3464, or rgaines@gloucestertimes.com.