Just days before the start of the annual meeting of the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT), a new report by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) has detailed a vast global blackmarket in critically endangered Atlantic bluefin tuna and the widespread fraud that is enabling it.
The report, Looting the Seas: How Overfishing, Fraud, and Negligence Plundered the Majestic Bluefin Tuna, paints a sobering picture of irresponsible and even criminal fishing practices and the complicit regulatory bodies that have allowed the eastern Atlantic bluefin spawning stock to be depleted to a quarter of what it was just four decades ago.
The report traces the frequently illegal process from catch (often in "purse seine" nets that can catch as many as 3000 of the giant fish at once) to rancher (where the fish are fattened to increase their market value) to trader (where the documents are often falsified to cover for illegal takes). Along the way, details of the size of the catch are obscured or totally eliminated, rendering take quotas practically ineffective.
Among the more alarming allegations is that fisheries in France "fixed" catch numbers even when accurately reported by fishermen so as to avoid international criticism. The report states that between 1998 and 2007 more than a third of the Atlantic bluefin caught worldwide was done so illegally.
It wasn't until 2007 that France declared accurate catch numbers of nearly 10,000 tons, nearly double its quota for the year. A criminal investigation followed, resulting in charges against the six of the nation's biggest fishing captains, yet fisheries officials have so far gone unsanctioned.
The lawlessness isn't limited to France however. Regulators recently seized a catch of 500 illegally harvested baby bluefin in southern Italy. In North Africa and Turkey, where there is less established enforcement mechanisms, less accountable fleets are capitalizing on the thriving illicit trade. An Algerian ship owner and 2 of Algeria’s Ministry of Fishing officials were recently convicted of trafficking in blackmarket bluefin.
This blackmarket industry is fed by a growing and already enormous bluefin demand for sashimi and sushi, largely in Japan (roughly 80%), though there's increased demand for it in Europe and elsewhere.. This has led to a hyper-inflated market wherein a single fish can fetch as much as $177,000.
Efforts to ban international trade in bluefin at this spring's meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) were unsuccessful despite U.S. backing.
Less than a month after the CITES meeting, the Gulf oil spill would deal yet another blow to the fish. Atlantic bluefin are separated into 2 stocks, eastern and western. The eastern stock spawns in the Mediterranean Sea while the western stock spawns in the Gulf. Researchers using satellite data recently estimated that the spill killed more than 20 percent of the juvenile Atlantic bluefin in the Gulf. There are additional worries about the impacts of chemical dispersants such as Corexit on the long term survival of the fish.
This combination of overfishing and habitat destruction make it imperative that the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) act now and grant the Atlantic bluefin tuna protections under the Endangered Species Act before it's too late. By protecting this highly migratory species in U.S. waters, we can help to facilitate the giant fishes' recovery worldwide.