Tuna-The Lords of the Sea

By Jean-Michel Cousteau

If you ask people which sea creature they consider the Lord of the Sea, many would pick the Great White Shark, for it perches atop the food chain in many regions. Others would choose the Sperm Whale, because of its phenomenal diving prowess. Still others would select the Killer Whale, a model of streamlined strength and cunning.

On some days, I am prone to pick the tuna. "Tuna?!" you exclaim in disbelief. That's right, the tuna is an amazing fish. We don't realize this because we usually encounter it in the form of a tuna sandwich, humble if not downright boring. Tunas can grow to weigh 1,500 pounds, yet they are extremely agile in the water. They migrate in great schools, keeping a swift steady pace, but when threatened, they can retract their fins and switch on the afterburner, reaching speeds of 50 miles per hour. Unfortunately, that's not fast enough to stay ahead of commercial and recreational fishermen, who pursue the tuna with long-lines, purse-seine nets and harpoons. Like the other Lords of the Sea-the whales and the sharks-many species of tuna are also in deep trouble.

One species, the western Atlantic Bluefin, numbered over a quarter of a million just 20 years ago. Today, there are only around 20,000 left. That's a decline of more than 90 percent in a single human generation. The problem, as with so many other spectacular sea creatures, is overexploitation by humans. Tunas are the object of a phenomenal gold rush. Not long ago, a single fish sold in the Tokyo fish market for $83,000 (U.S.).

Today the catches are smaller, the fish caught are smaller and markets in Asia are depressed, so profits are down. Something drastic needs to be done, but those in charge aren't doing it. Responsibility rests with the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tuna, or ICCAT. This organization also manages marlin and swordfish. It is supposed to manage for maximum sustainable yield, the highest number of fish that can be caught without endangering the future of the species. But instead, it has hastened these species' decline by continuing to act as if nothing is wrong.

In 1992, the American Fisheries Society noted that ICCAT's management scheme "will not allow the stock to recover, poses an unacceptable risk of there not being enough adult fish to spawn new generations of tuna, and is counter to the long-term interest of both fishery producers and consumers." Over the years, lobbying by the AFS and member nations (notably Sweden) for a reduction in the catch have prodded ICCAT to consider changing its ways. Yet at ICCAT's 1998 regular meeting in Spain, it was business as usual. Pushed to develop a 20-year plan to rebuild Bluefin stocks to mid-1970s levels, it devised a formula that virtually ensures the species' wholesale destruction: the meeting's final document calls for cutting the long-accepted numerical goal in half, while increasing catch quotas.

To achieve this bewildering result, new methods for assessing Maximum Sustainable Yield (MSY) were employed, methods that had not received peer review and that produced results contradictory to those produced by methods accepted in all other fisheries. The fishing industry is usually keen to demonstrate that the MSY of a given species is very large-that fish populations can sustain heavy fishing-yet here we have the bizarre situation where the MSY has been placed at only one-third the expected amount while, simultaneously, the allowed take has been increased.

ICCAT now claims that global environmental conditions have changed to the detriment of tuna. But it doesn't specify what these conditions are, or document exactly how they contributed to the decline of tuna or other species. It simply asks us to believe that Earth can no longer support a large Bluefin population. Heard enough? Wait, there's more. For 23 years, ICCAT claimed that restoring stocks to 1980s levels was necessary for commercial survival of the species. Now it claims that the number of tuna living in the 1980s (in fact, an already depleted population) was a historical aberration, a veritable population explosion, so no effort should be made to restore the fish at all. At the same time, ICCAT now says that the catch for Canada, the U.S. and Japan can be increased without hurting the species.

Perhaps I am ignorant, but killing more tuna seems a strange way to help the species survive. What's really going on? It's simple-business. Prices are falling. It figures that if a fish only brings one half to one quarter of the profit it once did, then more fish will have to be caught to sustain, not the species, but the exporter's profit margin. That's what ICCAT seems truly dedicated to preserving.

What's the solution? The United States, United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization and others have passed measures to help fish recover. But they are unwilling to challenge ICCAT's authority. In effect, everyone is passing the buck. All governments and their fishing industries claim to follow the rules laid down by ICCAT. The problem is, the rules themselves are flawed. And that's bad news for one of the true Lords of the Sea.