Bluefin tuna a remarkable fish indeed

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After the best part of a week of windy conditions and a weekend forecast of more of the same, it is unlikely that fishing is going to be on anyone’s agenda just yet.

While the amateurs have been indulging in other pastimes, some of the commercial operators took advantage of one of the beautiful days last weekend, giving the lobster gear a bit of a rest and attempting to get offshore in search of some of the usual fish species that the local market prefers. As a result, there has been a smattering of wahoo and yellowfin tuna bought ashore but the bottom line is this is not yet the time to drop everything and to fuel up the boat and book a day or so off work. Things are, as you might expect, slow and unreliable. Having said that, the unexpected does occasionally occur and when it does, it is every often during the so-called “off season”. And such was the case this past week when a commercial boat had a very occasional visitor to our waters inhale a troll. The fish in question was a bluefin tuna that was snapped up by a local sushi restaurant. And that’s when the fun started.

First off, there seems to be no shortage of misinformation around concerning one of the most sought after fish species in the world. The recent news of the capture of a 320-pound bluefin tuna locally appeared in a number of media outlets and brought about all sorts of mixed reactions.

So, to set the record straight: the Atlantic bluefin tuna is a very large (often better than a thousand pounds) predatory species that roams the ocean from relatively inshore waters to the true pelagic regions of the open sea. They are essentially like other tunas in that they are school fish, boast multiple adaptations for high speed swimming efficiency and, pound-for-pound, are immense power houses. To further bear this out, just note how many of the recognised marine game fishes are tunas or are related to the tuna clan.

The range of this species is quite incredible as it covers the North Atlantic and Mediterranean. It can be found in American, Canadian and even Norwegian waters. There was even a highly regarded sport fishery in the clear waters of the Bahamas where many early sport fishing legends made their names in the pursuit of huge fish in the shallow waters with sandy bottoms. It was this habit of schooling over the deeper flats that made the fish ever so more vulnerable and, in order to take advantage of this, boats started erecting structures that gave the captain the height necessary for viewing the passage of the fish: hence, the “tuna tower” was born.

It is an important fishery for many nations in the Mediterranean. Some of these fisheries date back millennia and are mentioned in ancient records. With modern gear obviously being absent, the ancients used tuna traps or methods that led the fish into shallow waters in bays or inlets from which there was no escape and they could be caught and butchered as required. Nets were also employed as were harpoon or spear fisheries. The Mediterranean bluefin tuna are big but do not achieve the size that the Atlantic roamers seem to.

Although it has been an important species for a good long time, it was after World War Two that the species became an object of focus for the highly lucrative Japanese sushi market. It was the rapid increase in high seas fisheries that brought to many governments’ attention that there was a need for some sort of regional fisheries management. It was patently clear that no one country can really have too much effect on a species that travels the world. Apart from the consideration that each nation really only has control over its own nationals and jurisdictional waters, this leaves the migratory fish at the mercy of every other nation involved and no one wants to lose control of what is indeed a very valuable resource.

After plenty of hemming and hawing (every nation that had a vested interest wanted to make sure that it was not short-changed and nations, as a general rule, do not trust each other), in 1966 the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) was born. The Commission was put into place to control the exploitation of tunas and tuna-like species (marlins, etc) in the Atlantic and Mediterranean seas and to ensure that the exploiting nations all got their share of what was determined to be the maximum sustainable yield (MSY).

Without really boring people, suffice it to be said that MSY may not be the best way of managing a fishery and there is the problem of each party involved thinking that it should have the lion’s share of that yield.

The fishery for bluefin and the market demand was considerably ahead of the science and by the time one caught up with the other, the situation that had deteriorated to the point that major cuts were going to have to be made. Naturally, no one wanted to give up a valuable trade. So, certain initial allocations were set and have been set ever since, with changes occurring on a regular basis. These allocations are debated and deals worked out at the annual ICCAT meetings with the fish receiving the least representation of all.

Broadly, it was agreed early on that the Atlantic population of bluefin would be managed as an eastern (inclusive of the Mediterranean stock) and western stock. Both were deemed to be independent of each other although that is no longer believed to be true. The fact that satellite and conventional tags have shown trans-Atlantic migrations and the fact that they occasionally occur here in the mid-Atlantic are further proof of the fallacy of that argument. Thus the science, national economics and the various fishing operations conspire to take the greatest advantage of the species without, hopefully, killing the goose that lays the golden egg. Not what the word “conservation” conjures up but at least it is a somewhat positive move.

Bermuda is involved in ICCAT and does have a share, albeit very limited, of the international harvest of the species. So, at the very least, Bermuda is entitled to, and is, a legal exploiter of the bluefin that migrate through the Bermuda zone.

Fears of extinction have been raised but this is highly unlikely. From a commercial standpoint, bluefin tuna are not rare — yet, at least, and the fish are readily available in many of the world’s markets with Japan remaining the premier one.

Extinction is a term that means “gone” as in forever. The dodo is extinct, dinosaurs are extinct; in fact, more of the species that the world has ever known are extinct than survive but the likelihood of the bluefin going extinct is extreme. One of the main reasons for this is that the hunt for the fish is market-driven and, as such, it is a business. When the outcome is less than the input it is no longer viable for the business to continue. So when the fish stocks are so depleted that the business of catching them does not offer an economic return, it will be said to be commercially extinct. The total collapse of the fishery, which is not imminent, does not mean that these mighty fish will cease to traverse the seas, decimate bait species and, just once in a while, give some fisherman or angler some exceedingly Tight lines!!!

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Published Feb 16, 2013 at 8:00 am (Updated Feb 15, 2013 at 4:19 pm)

Bluefin tuna a remarkable fish indeed

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