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Born Free USA Blog

Born Free USA Blog

When Will CITES Help the Tuna?

Published 12/08/08
By Barry Kent MacKay, Senior Program Associate

We told them so ...

Eighteen years ago I tried to help conservationists seeking to provide some level of protection for the Bluefin Tuna by having it listed under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Fauna and Flora (CITES). We were, quite simply, concerned by the obvious and precipitous decline in populations of these magnificent fish.

We failed.

I remembered that failure when, last month, an article with the title, “Bluefin tuna: headed for extinction in Atlantic and Mediterranean” showed up in my email. It was a minor news piece, but what caught my eye was the statement that “A European Parliament report on the illegal bluefin tuna trawling by European fishers has been scrubbed clean of any embarrassing data, such as the names of countries most responsible.” Nothing new there, either, with perhaps the exception that it got reported. Political entities, including federal governments and elected or appointed oversight organizations, are, being political, placed under huge pressures by the very profiteers whose activities they seek to manage.

But then it said, “That means ICCAT might soon be replaced by CITES ... because the Atlantic bluefin tuna will be an officially endangered species.”

Even if any major population of tuna could be listed under CITES under Appendix II, it is almost impossible to get enough of countries who must vote on such a proposal to do so. That’s true even though, in fact, an Appendix II listing does not of itself prevent continued exploitation of the species.

Such a listing does, however, require a level of documentation that makes it more difficult for illegal trade — poaching — to occur. Also, and this is what sends chills down the collective spines of those who profit from the exploitation of wild flora and fauna, such a listing theoretically could make it easier to later obtain an Appendix I listing, which shuts down legal international trade among CITES-member countries (most of the world) for “primarily commercial purposes.”

While conservationist did recently celebrate seeing some sadly endangered shark species listed under CITES at the last conference of the parties, generally CITES has shied away from listing oceanic fish and other sea life.

Part of the reticence derives from the fact that many marine species are “managed” by other treaties. Tuna, for example, are managed under ICCAT, the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tuna. Possibly not all of the thirty species whose catch levels are regulated by ICCAT have been total disasters, but the eastern (including the Mediterranean) and western Atlantic bluefin tuna stocks have been nearly wiped out as a result of ICCAT’s ineptitude, just as we could see happening eighteen years ago. Just this year ICCAT again ignored the advice of its own scientific advisors and continued to set catch higher quotas that will allow the dwindling numbers of tuna to decline toward critical endangerment.

Saying, “We told you so” is not enough. We know from the collapse of once huge populations of northern cod off Canada’s east coast that fish can reach a level so low that recovery to former numbers becomes impossible. By the time, if such a time comes, that CITES finally starts to recognize that it, not ICCAT, is the tuna’s best chance for survival, it will, I fear, be too late.

Blogging off,


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