My Qatar Gently Weeps.

March 19th, 2010 | 12 Comments
Bluefin Tuna, Fish, Fishing & Fishermen

The right thing never happens for the mighty bluefin tuna.  The latest debacle just happened at the CITES meeting in Doha, Qatar.

AgileThe main Atlantic bluefin tuna fishing nations—the U.S., the entire European Union—plus Norway and Kenya, supported Monaco’s proposal to ban international trade in bluefin tuna.  Forty years of mismanagement and continual decline, the destruction of the West Atlantic breeding population, and the uncontrolled tailspin of the Mediterranean’s bluefins due to rampant overfishing, convinced them that a ban was needed. The U.N. agreed, as did the World Conservation Union.

But bullied by Japan, with complicity from Canada (two countries which have famously demolished their fish populations), many poor countries with no stake in North Atlantic bluefin tuna—but with a lot to lose by Japan’s threats to withhold economic aid—voted with Japan to sink Monaco’s proposal.

With that, they sank the bluefin’s chance at a life-raft.  For now, hopes for arresting the decline, and for seeing a recovery, are belly-up.

Japan says a ban would devastate fishing economies.  As if destroying the fish won’t.

When I was younger, catching bluefin tuna was the most thrilling thing I did.  Now, those great, rushing, ocean-bursting schools are gone.  That startling surge, the shocking power, the pandemonium in the cockpit, remain vivid in my memory.  Then, hundreds of boats pursued them.  Now, so few bluefin come along our coast that virtually no one tries to find them.  For me, the mere idea is sad.

I recently watched a video I’d shot almost twenty years ago of two friends and me catching two bluefins on my boat.  What was so exciting then, I could hardly watch.  That was around the time I’d realized the writing on the wall, because it was evident the fish were getting scarcer.  And for two decades I have written, lobbied, and tried in various ways to put the brakes on this criminally negligent fishery.

I was hoping for good news today.  I have a bottle of champagne on my desk.  But with Japan undermining the democracy of the CITES convention, I was braced for what’s happened.  My champagne will remain firmly corked.  Success remains elusive.  There are miles to go before we have something to celebrate.  The situation will worsen.  And then, someday, maybe not entirely too late, we’ll succeed in making the right thing happen for the beleaguered bluefin tuna.  And then we’ll pop the cork.

12 Responses to “My Qatar Gently Weeps.”

  1. John says:

    I believe your blog paints a false picture of the bluefin fishery in the United States. You state the sadness of not being able to fish yourself and of the lost fleets of boats that used to fish for them. With all due respect, I must tell you that recreational bluefin participation is at an all time high. The fishery is at an all time high because of the awesome numbers of these fish encountered over large swaths of the near coastal waters of the east coast. To state otherwise is untrue. Quite simply , ther are millions of these fish using the inshore waters from North Carolina to Canada. If you cannot get on a boat to participate and view yourself, I suggest you talk to some of the thousands upon thousands of boaters that do fish for bluefin. The vast shoals of these powerful fish are out there again because of strict and responsible rules imposed on north american fisherman since the juvenile seine fishery of the 60’s. For honesty and truth you must report such.

  2. Alex says:

    john, maybe you missed Carl’s book – Song for a Blue Ocean…

  3. carl safina says:

    There are a lot of juveniles in places at times, but very few adults and nowhere near what they were like. “All time high” number of boats, probably. So what? That’s one part of the problem.
    Here’s the facts: the US fleet, which always overran it’s quota in the 1990s, has been catching about 15% as much as it did then. Not because I say so. Because the fish are not there.
    Off eastern Long Island where I fish, virtually no charter boats will even accept charters for bluefin any more because it’s a near-guaranteed disappointment. The hundreds of boats that pursued them in the fall just don’t bother.
    You’re probably much too young to have any idea what it used to be like.

  4. John says:

    Carl – We are just going to have to disagree about the raw tonnage of bluefin swimming in the western atlantic. It is true that the US general commercial category only caught 60% of thier quota last year. Much of that is related to the availability of the giants but is also caused in part by lack of effort due to the price of the fish being weak. Nuisance fish (mainly the abundance of spiny dogfish) and area restrictions have also hampered the traditonal US fisheries.The canadian giant fishery must also be considered.because it also is a barometer of the NW Atlantic fishery. By any measure, the Canuck giant fishery just north of New England is spectacular. They are forced to reserve quota for later in their season just to maintain market price.

    As far as the US recreational fisheries health, please visit also the oregon inlet fishing center reports page. I can forward you similiar reports of similiar bluefin abundances that last for over 5 months and cover a large area of the east coast shoreline. It really is eye opening to see these non localized abundances. I personally have participated in the fishery off New Jersey and New York over the last two years. The charter boats ARE taking people bluefin fishing and they are encountering wonderful amounts of these fish. The New England charterboat fleet has shifted over to concentrating almost soley on Bluefin because of the daily opportunity to provide their customers the finest big game fishing experience in the world..
    I feel fortunate to have this dialog. Perhaps I can convince you to see these fish from the air. You would see the tens of thousands of tons of fish I see daily. My perspectives on the Northwest Atlantic fishery are different from yours primarily bcause of the raw amount of time I spend interacting with these fish. You are always welcome to increase your knowledge of these fish by benefitting from my 40 years on the water. My ultimate goal is to show you that ordering fresh American or Canadian bluefin tuna in any american restaurant or sushi bar is a repsonsible ecological as well as tasty choice. Plan on enjoying a great bluefin dinner if you able to get out with me. The fishing is FANTASTIC off our coasts because of responsible fisherman fishing within responsible harvest limits.

  5. carl safina says:

    I appreciate your civil tone. That is rare and valued. Thank you.
    Yes, we disagree. The overall annual catches are a small fraction of what they were. That speaks more than anything you or I can say or infer.
    For twenty years I’ve heard that you could see thousands of bluefin tuna from the air in New England. I spent three days looking and saw some. For thirty years I’ve heard that juvenile year classes were going to save the population. They are always fished to near-oblivion before becoming adults. In the 1990s I repeatedly fished Hatteras with some of the best boats and best scientists. On a bad day, we’d tag maybe five giant bluefin. On good days, twenty. Now, most days in the last few seasons, they catch zero. Yes there were a lot of juvenile fish for a few weeks of New Jersey and Cape Cod. A few fishing reports do not compensate for the fact that the fishing is terrible in places where, for decades, it was terrific. In the 1980s and ’90s, it was not unusual to hook bluefin when shark fishing. It was unusual to catch them while fishing for summer flounder, but I had that happen one day too (we caught two 50-pounders on fluke rigs that day).
    To understand how much we’ve lost, read some of the old descriptions, like Zane Gray’s and the pioneering sport fishermen, of bluefin fishing in New England and Nova Scotia. They caught giants along the shore routinely. Bluefin tuna were pests around herring traps. Nothing remotely like those numbers of fish exist any longer.

  6. Michelle says:

    Dear John,

    I have some numbers I can send you from fish selling at the Tokyo Fish market. Most are juveniles and hardly any adults. Without adult fish in a population, simply there will be no fish in the future. Also, I have done extensive research for my MSc on bluefin tuna and the US quota has not been met for a long time. We are heading toward commercial extinction of the Atlantic bluefin tuna, and the Southern bluefin tuna is actually in worse condition and is already endangered. The IUCN listing needs to upgrade the status for both oceans, last it was updated it was around 1994, clearly we need a revision.

    Also, there are complicated life stages where fish from Western stock is being caught in the Mediterranean-where the EU has failed to put any monitoring, catch quotas are not reported and we have issues with illegal fishing. All the issues mentioned previously, makes impossible for a scientist to proper figure out MSY, TAC-we can account for fish, when the EU is not playing by rules. For instance, the EU has failed numerous times to provide protection to spawning fish, this is a recipe for disaster, a bottleneck that will hinder the survival of a long-lived species. Some tunas are as old as 40 years, we aren’t seeing any fish aged above 15 in Japan, mostly are 3 to 4 years old. If it is from a Western stock, then it is a juvenile, if it is from a Eastern stock, still borderline juvenile.

    Short-term solutions will lend the EU and US fishers unable to sustain their families. This is a certainty, I live between the US and the UK and most cod fishers up in York are taxi drivers earning four pounds per drive.

  7. Pamela Biery says:

    For those interested in better understanding Japan’s relationship to the fishing, please see the award winning documentary “The Cove”. Review posted here:

  8. Oscilloscope says:

    most american restaurants serves fatty foods that is why sometimes i avoid them “,~

  9. Hal Moe says:

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  10. Sam Mctighe says:

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  11. Hey just wanted to give yoou a brief heeads up and let you know a few of the pictures aren’t loading properly.
    I’m not sure why but I think its a linking issue.
    I’ve tried it in ttwo different browsers and both show
    the same outcome.

  12. carls_crew says:

    Thank you for your inquiry. Please submit questions through the comment area and Dr. Safina will receive them. Thank you!

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