For whom the bell trolls

Posted: Friday, November 19, 2010

It's been said patience is a virtue. But while patience has served me well on the water, it's been a challenge when I'm either in the boardroom or out talking with policymakers. And as the head of one of the world's oldest sports fishing associations, I just can't sit back while lax fishery management measures drive one of our greatest gamefish, the Atlantic bluefin tuna, into oblivion.

Weighing up to 1,500 pounds and migrating distances as far as 4,800 miles a year, these iconic and majestic gamefish have been prized by anglers for generations. But they are valued by recreational fishermen for another reason: they play an invaluable function in keeping our oceans ecologically healthy by serving as a key predator at the top of the marine food chain. Recreational anglers, though, are not alone in their pursuit of the bluefin.

Known for their deep red meat, these tuna are in high demand by chefs looking to appease diners around the world. In fact, they are so sought after that a single fish sold in Tokyo recently for more than $150,000. Yet overfishing, in combination with poor tools to manage the number of Atlantic bluefin caught annually, could rob future generations of anglers the opportunity to ever see this fish in the wild.

Recreational anglers have witnessed the gross mismanagement of the Atlantic bluefin population for decades. And it doesn't seem to be getting better. In fact, scientists for the very organization charged with managing the catch on the high seas - the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) - stated in 2009 that the current population is below 15 percent of the historical baseline. In other words, 85 percent of the fish are now gone.

This, in no small part, is due to the inability of ICCAT's leadership to either enforce existing quotas for bluefin catches or even require nations to keep accurate records of how many fish are caught each year. Indeed, ICCAT's own scientific committee recently discovered that catches in the Mediterranean were significantly underreported from 1998 to 2007.

For example, in 2007 an estimated 61,000 metric tons of bluefin were actually caught in the Eastern Atlantic despite a quota set at 29,500 metric tons. This is both irresponsible and unfair to game fishermen around the world who play by the rules.

This November, ICCAT will hold its annual meeting in Paris. If ICCAT member countries want to try to set things right they first need to stop ignoring the science and require accurate accounting of commercial bluefin catches. Too often it seems that when it comes to evaluating the science, ICCAT leaders keep moving the goalposts - continually asking for more research when action instead is clearly needed.

Something has to give. The overwhelming preponderance of evidence shows the need for reform now. A clear opportunity to set things right for bluefin would be the creation of no-take areas where they spawn in the Mediterranean and Gulf of Mexico. Fishing for a threatened species on its spawning grounds defies all logic. But U.S. policymakers shouldn't leave its fate to international fishery management organizations like ICCAT, either.

Here at home there are also steps we could take to help the plight of this fish. This includes working to end the usage of surface longlines in the Gulf of Mexico - an indiscriminate fishing gear that unintentionally kills countless animals, from gamefish like bluefin and white marlin to sea turtles and sharks.

Tales of the pursuit of iconic gamefish like Atlantic bluefin by Hemingway and others are the legends that built deep sea sportfishing as we know it today. And when it comes to protecting our oceans and ensuring that future anglers have the same opportunity as those did in decades past, recreational fishermen can no longer afford to be patient.

We need to let policymakers, both at home and abroad, know that urgent action is needed now to save the Atlantic bluefin tuna.

• Rob Kramer is president of the International Game Fish Association. He can be contacted at 300 Gulf Stream Way, Dania Beach, FL 33004.

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