Summer 2017 saw the tuna fishing season open, and within four weeks local anglers had landed 9 out of the 15.5 tonnes of the allocated quota. As it turns out this quota had been increased from 13 tonnes in 2016. These figures are not just plucked from the air, they are set by ICCAT and although Gibraltar is not officially a member, we follow the guidelines as if we were.
Bluefin tuna, Thunnus thynnus, is listed as endangered on the IUCN Red List. The status given means that the species “face a high risk of extinction in the near future”. Other animals at this endangered level include Asiatic elephants, Asiatic tigers and whale sharks. Locally, we have protected spider crabs, almost every species of shark and even the common octopus during their breeding seasons, a pretty good track record. Yet, there appears to be a general reluctance to offer this protection to tuna, despite their high risk of extinction.
According to ICCAT’s report spanning 1990-2014 reported bluefin landing numbers have dropped from around 53k tonnes to 15k tonnes. This is a dramatic decrease in tonnes of fish caught and definitely a step in the right direction. In spite of this, Bluefin tuna is still listed as endangered. However, IUCN Red list reports that between 1985-2005 there was an overall decrease in the Mediterranean bluefin stock by 63%. Further, the organisation reports that “there is no current indication that these declines are slowing, and strict management measures should be enforced”.
Global Tuna Conservation, part of the Pew Charitable Trusts, has acknowledged that there are worrying signs that ICCAT is bowing to economic and political pressures to increase quotas. They report that between 2009 to 2014 ICCAT followed scientific recommendations 88% of the time; this figure dropped to 43% between 2015 and 2016, a worrying development. They added “signs in the last two years indicate that ICCAT is moving in the wrong direction” and by extension, so are we!
But let me be clear on a few things. Firstly, one can have sympathy for the recreational fishermen within our community who go out for a bit of fun and land one or two tuna in a season. What is harder to understand is why it appears to be acceptable to do this to an endangered species; to adapt a well-known axiom, there are plenty “other” fish in the sea.
On the other hand, what one cannot not sympathise with are the commercial levels of tuna fishing which have been taking place under the guise of “recreational fishing”. Nine tonnes in four weeks is not recreational fishing, especially when it was confirmed last summer that the nine tonnes had been caught by about four boats.
If you are simply in it for the thrill, then why not ‘tag and release’ the bluefin you catch and everyone is happy. But here, I’m afraid, is where the pro-quota arguments start to unravel a bit. Bluefin meat is worth a pretty penny and previous local attempts to tag and release failed due to nefarious activities. On the Tokyo market in 2014, a sushi restaurateur paid £43,000 for a 230 kg bluefin – and that is not even a high price. The same market sold a 222 kg bluefin for a record breaking £900,000 the year before. It becomes very clear what is motivating some people.
Interestingly, in Trevor Norton’s Underwater to Get Out of the Rain: A Love Affair with the Sea, he is talking about an old whaling station that ceased working due to the collapse of the whale stocks. He goes on to make the cute observation that historically practically all obsolete fisheries have reached this state because of a collapse in the standing stock. A worrying thought indeed.
It seems clear that much more breathing room is required to allow the stocks to replenish and that statement comes with implications. If we were to lower the quota locally then that would not affect our neighbours across the border as they would still be following ICCAT recommendations. But ignoring the situation and fishing tuna to extinction cannot be the solution, surely two wrongs don’t make a right.
As a positive side effect, tuna are also a predator of jellyfish. The last year has seen massive increases in their numbers arriving on our shores and scientific predications paint a bleak picture for the upcoming summer 2018. Securing healthy tuna numbers is part of the solution to a jellyfish free summer!
Therefore, it seems logical that dropping the quota to zero might leave us on the moral high ground in defence of a species which is in imminent danger of disappearing altogether. Gibraltar can lead the charge, once again, in this conservation effort, and demonstrate that we understand the importance of safeguarding our ecosystems and the positive effects this will have with respect to jellyfish numbers. That in itself is worth some currency. In time, this may well open up new eco industries which will generate more money than a single tuna ever could.
One final thought comes from a Cree Indian prophecy which resonates strongly with this topic: “When the last tree is cut down, the last fish eaten and the last stream poisoned, you will realise that you cannot eat money.”