Tuna and pollock - A tale of two fisheries

How to pillage the oceans deliberately, and by accident.

THERE are two ways to overfish the sea. One is to ignore scientific advice and plunder on regardless. The other is to accept the advice, and then discover it isn’t good enough.

For decades the Atlantic bluefin-tuna fishery has fallen into the former camp. The International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT), the group charged with managing this fishery, has been a disgrace. Every year, its member states have handed themselves quotas far in excess of those prescribed by the organisation’s scientific advice. Last year things were so bad that ICCAT’s chairman warned members that if they did not do better their power to manage the bluefin would end up being taken away from them. But they failed to restrain themselves, and the backlash has begun. Earlier this year Monaco proposed that the bluefin be listed in Appendix I of CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora). Such a listing would ban all international trade while the stock recovered.

Before such a suggestion can be put to a vote next March, a second member of CITES needs to support Monaco’s proposal. This week, amid much internal political wrangling, the European Commission officially backed calls for a CITES listing. Since CITES is a convention on trade, the European Union’s members, whom the commission represents, have to agree a common line on the matter, but a vote now seems much more likely.

Over in America, meanwhile, there are rumblings that the other type of overfishing, due to a flawed understanding of the science involved, is happening in Alaska’s pollock fishery, one of the world’s largest. Unlike the bluefin, the Alaskan pollock is among the most intensively managed fisheries in the world—it is run by America’s National Marine Fisheries Service. Pollock are an important ingredient of fish fingers, fillets and many other products. Moreover, many people go out of their way to eat pollock in the belief that it is a sustainable choice of fish.

Last year’s data suggested the population was low. However the Marine Stewardship Council, a London-based charity that certifies the fishery as sustainable through an independent auditor, said this was within the natural range of variation for the species, and that a recovery is expected this year. Not everyone is so sanguine. The latest data are not due out until September 18th, but Greenpeace, which has been arguing for almost a year that the fishery is on the verge of collapse, says it has had a tip-off that such a collapse is indeed under way.

If that is the case, Greenpeace says it will use America’s Endangered Species Act to try to force the government to have the fishery closed. It is not that the pollock itself would be endangered at this stage, but Steller’s sea lion, which the act covers, might be threatened if too much of its food were being eaten by people.

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