PARIS – Dozens of nations will convene in the coming week to decide the fate of one of the planet’s most valuable fish: the bigeye tuna, backbone of a billion-dollar business that is severely overfished.
Scientists shocked many in the industry last month when they warned that unless catch levels are sharply reduced, stocks of the fatty, fast-swimming predator could crash within a decade or two.
Less iconic than Atlantic bluefin but more valuable as an industry, bigeye (Thunnus obesus) — one of several so-called tropical tunas — is prized for sashimi in Japan and canned for supermarket sales worldwide.
It is not farmed.
An internal report by 40-odd scientists working under the inter-governmental International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) showed in October that populations have fallen to less than 20 percent of historic levels.
“This species is in the red,” said Daniel Gaertner, specialist in tropical tunas at France’s Institute for Research and Development, which helps track bigeye stocks.
States are due to decide at the summit, which begins Monday in the Croatian seaside city of Dubrovnik, whether to renew bigeye quotas or revise them downward.
Three years ago, ICCAT introduced a 65,000-ton catch limit for the seven largest fishers of bigeye, and a moratorium in certain areas of ocean.
But other countries are not bound by the quotas, and bigeye hauls last year topped 80,000 tons — far too high to begin replenishing stocks.
Some experts have calculated that cutting the total catch to 50,000 tons per year would give bigeye a 70 percent probability of recovery by 2028.
“Bottom line, there are simply too many boats in the water chasing too few fish,” said Paulus Tak, a senior officer for the Pew Charitable Trusts, and an official observer at the ICCAT meeting.
The European Union — the second largest bigeye fisher after Japan — is set to propose an as-yet unnamed quota for all nations that catch more than 500 tons per year.
For Adam Baske of the International Pole and Line Federation, which advocates sustainable tuna fishing, a drop in quotas must be accompanied by “shared access to resources for small operators and developing nations.”
Many communities in the Azores, Madeira, and parts of Brazil and Senegal are dependent on bluefin for most of their income, Baske said.
ICCAT, which struggles to balance commercial and conservation goals, has been here before.
A decade ago, the industry — led by Spain, France and Japan — fished Atlantic eastern bluefin to the brink of collapse, triggering a motion at the U.N. body governing trade in endangered species to ban international trade outright.
The motion failed, but jolted the industry into lowering quotas and cracking down on illegal fishing. Stocks recovered fairly quickly.
Environmentalists have watched anxiously as quotas have once again climbed, set to reach 36,000 tons by 2020.
The 50 ICCAT member nations — as well as scientists, conservation groups and representatives of the fishing industry — will look at eastern bluefin this time around, as well as the Atlantic blue marlin.
Another issue topping their agenda will be illegal fishing.
European crime agency Europol last month dismantled a network spanning four Mediterranean nations suspected of hauling in a whopping 2,500 tons of illegal bluefin.
Sonja Fordham, of Shark Advocates International said she hoped ICCAT would address the issue of shark fishing, the continued rise of which has alarmed conservationists.
“The catch needs to come down, and very drastically, having historically not been a priority,” she said.