The bluefin tuna is large, fast, tasty and rare. For those reasons, it’s highly prized by both commercial and sports fishers. The Atlantic bluefin often sells for more than $1,000 a kilogram. That’s pushed the fish even closer to the brink of extinction.
The Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada recently recommended that the western Atlantic population of bluefin tuna be listed as endangered. The bluefin joins salmon, rockfish, sharks, loggerhead sea turtles, Atlantic cod and many others on the list of at-risk marine species in Canada. Fishing was identified as a key factor in the decline of all these species.
Sadly, government and industry appear to be in denial.
“Our Atlantic bluefin tuna fishery is the best-managed fishery of its kind in the world today,” a Department of Fisheries and Oceans official said in response to the recommendation. An industry representative claimed that listing bluefin tuna under Canada’s Species at Risk Act would be “just another nail in the coffin” for Atlantic fishermen. Department of Fisheries and Oceans opinion regarding the bluefin tuna fishery is featured on its Sustainable Fish and Seafood web page, with links to a series of government-funded promotional videos on the tuna.
The bluefin that visit Canadian waters during summer are primarily large, mature fish that spawn in the Gulf of Mexico in May. They are caught mostly around Prince Edward Island and southwest Nova Scotia. Recent estimates show the population of spawning bluefin at around 66,000, the lowest on record, down from more than 265,000 in the 1970s.
The U.S. also targets these fish, but the government there at least admits on its website that bluefin is overfished. The U.S. is considering listing it as endangered under its Endangered Species Act. The Americans have also made other moves to protect the fish. A fishery that targets other species but that hooks bluefin tuna incidentally as bycatch must use “weak hooks” that straighten when a large bluefin is caught, allowing it to escape. Ironically, while the U.S. government is trying to figure out ways to let large bluefins escape and survive, the Canadian government is creating videos that promote capturing them.
In an effort to justify the harvest of an overfished and endangered species, our government has made some moves to monitor the number being caught but is failing to take measures to actually recover the species.
Canada will decide whether to officially list bluefin under the Species at Risk Act in about a year. Listing would unleash a number of critical tools to recover bluefin, an outcome that could even benefit fishers. Researchers estimate that a rebuilt population would triple the number of fish available to catch in the future. Such a listing means working with other countries, which would give this tuna a real chance to make a comeback. It would also set an example for nations around the world.
Management of marine species at risk is at a turning point in Canada. A recent federal court decision on the protection of killer whales described the Department of Fisheries and Oceans as “unjustifiably evasive and obstructive” and has ordered the department to reimburse organizations that took the government to court, including the David Suzuki Foundation. These taxpayer dollars would be better spent on what Canadians want: protecting our endangered species. Instead, our money is being used to defend practices and fisheries that are unacceptable to most Canadians. We can either continue to squeeze limited and short-term economic opportunities out of depleted species or we can put conservation first by using the tools we have to recover them.
Canadian bluefin tuna fishermen don’t believe they are killing off the resource, nor does the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, but the international scientific management authority overseeing the quotas has concluded that “considerable uncertainties remain for the outlook of the western stock.” Adding further concern, last year’s oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico overlapped in both time and space with the only known spawning area for western bluefin.
Our bluefin fishery is more like the grizzly bear trophy hunt than a food fishery. Eating bluefin has been equated to eating pandas and tigers. We should be recovering, not eating, endangered species. We have the tools and knowledge to rebuild their populations. We are only lacking leadership and long-term thinking.
Scientist, author and broadcaster David Suzuki wrote this column with David Suzuki Foundation sustainable fisheries analyst Scott Wallace. Learn more at www.davidsuzuki.org.