Bluefin tuna: Who's to blame?
Paris - As dozens of nations meeting in Paris grope for a way to save the Atlantic bluefin tuna without destroying the billion-dollar industry built on its gleaming back, a question haunts the debate: who's most to blame for driving the species to the brink of collapse?
That bluefin stocks are in bad shape is hard to deny.
Even the Chairman of the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tuna (ICCAT), set to announce new catch quotas on Saturday, says the body's management of the fishery - especially in the Mediterranean - has been "a disgrace".
Eastern Atlantic bluefin populations are less that 15% of their historical high, and only 30% of "mass sustainable yield," the theoretical equilibrium between a natural state and commercial fishing.
Some experts worry a tipping point may already have been passed, in part because the average size of the slow-maturing species has dropped below prime spawning age.
"In the late 1990s, 75% of all eastern Atlantic bluefin airfreighted to and auctioned in Japan was 120kg or above," said Roberto Mielgo, a Spanish expert.
"In 2008, 2009 and 2010 so far, the ratio is reversed: 75% of all fish auctioned are under 120 kilos," added Mielgo, who helped pioneer the use of "tuna farms" in the Mediterranean in the mid-1990s.
How did things get to such a sorry state?
Certainly commercial fishermen must take a large slice of the blame, especially those who systematically cheated on already generous quotas set by ICCAT.
Fraud and under-reporting may have peaked in 2007, when quotas twice the catch level recommended by ICCAT scientists were doubled yet again.
But fault lays more with governments that looked the other way than with the men who took to sea, argues Sue Lieberman, policy director for the Washington-based Pew Environment Group.
"Of course many fishermen cheated. If there's a speed limit but you know that you will never get a ticket, wouldn't you speed?", she said.
"But they are cheating with boats their governments gave them money to build," she added.
Over the last few years, Europe has funnelled tens of millions of euros into expanding and renovating a fleet that was already at overcapacity, adding even more pressure on dwindling stocks.
About 70% of the bluefin caught in the Mediterranean are netted by industrial purse seine vessels with vast, sack-like nets that encircle tuna as they gather to spawn.
"Based on the number of vessels in the Mediterranean, they should be fishing 50 000 tonnes," Lieberman said.
ICCAT's 2010 quota was 13 500 tonnes, a number that could shrink further on Saturday.
Conservationists say purse seiners should be banned, and that a sharply reduced catch limit should be handed over to fishermen who use artisanal methods.
Japan - by far the largest market for the fatty fish - has also helped drive the bluefin debacle, experts say.
This year, Tokyo refused to accept shipments totalling 3 000 tonnes because of suspect documentation. In Paris, Japanese delegates have lambasted fishing nations that violate strict new reporting rules.
In the past, however, Japan invested heavily in building up the hard-to-monitor purse-seine and ranching system that now threatens stocks. It also remained silent when fraud was most rampant.
ICCAT scientists are generally given credit for doing the best they can under difficult circumstances.
"They have to come up with recommendations using data and assessment methods which are both deficient in major ways," notes statistician and biologist Justin Cooke, who sits on ICCAT's scientific committee.
In the end, consumers must also decide whether they will continue to eat a species to the edge of viability.
Many high-end restaurants in North America and Europe are now "bluefin free", and a growing number of major supermarkets, wholesalers and other businesses have followed suit.
For Mielgo, who has gravitated from industry insider to environmentalist over the last 15 years, "pointing fingers at this stage is useless".
"More than anything, it is the system that is to blame, along with the deeply ingrained idea that the sea is a free-for-all that will offer up fish for ever. It is not," he said.