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A tale of two CITES

There’s fish in them thar seas: but for how much longer?

Would you like tartar sauce with that?
Would you like tartar sauce with that?

Pollock and tuna: two fish with little else in common, except for a tendency to be overfished (or “pillaged,” as one journal decribed it). Across the globe, many of the world’s traditional fisheries are threatened, because of habitat destruction and unsustainable fishing practices. Some fisheries remain healthy and producing because of responsible harvesting and better management. In Alaska, one of the world’s largest pollock fisheries has been the overfished, in spite of being one of the most strictly-managed operations in the world. Alaskan pollock (a close relative of cod) are a key ingredient in fish sticks, filets, and lots of other products, including many fast food staples. The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), a division of the Department of Commerce, runs the Alaskan pollock fishery. Data last year from the NMFS indicated that the pollock population was low. Not so fast, said the Marine Stewardship Council, which utilizes an independent auditor to certify the fishery as sustainable, says the data was in the acceptable range, and that a recovery is anticipated.

But Greenpeace International, in an October 9th report, wrote: “The fish cannot reproduce and recover as quickly as they are being fished. Just as the financial institutions on Wall Street collapsed due to poor oversight and mismanagement – the pollock fishery is on the fast-track to collapse as well.” The North Pacific Fishery Management Council (NPFMC) has exclusive jurisdiction over Alaska’s 900,000 square mile Exclusive Economic Zone, and overseas the pollock’s fishing. But Greenpeace says the NPFMC “is dominated by fishing industry representatives. With exemptions from conflict of interest laws, Council members regularly vote against measures that would effect their bottom line.” Greenpeace wants the federal government to intervene by using the Endangered Species Act to close the fishery. The law would be applied in the protection of the Steller’s sea lion, which also eats pollock; the argument being that too many fish harvested for human consumption could endanger the sea lions.

On the other side of the world, there’s less controversy surrounding the overfishing of the Atlantic bluefin-tuna. The body which has oversight for the fishery, the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT), has fallen into disrepute because its member states each year have permitted quotas far exceeding those advised by the organization’s own scientific committee. In 2008, ICCAT’s chairman cautioned members that if they didn’t start self-policing, the real police would come in and do it for them. But restraint wasn’t in the cards, and now the consequences are starting to show. This year, Monacco proposed listing the bluefin in CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora). A listing would prohibit all international trade in bluefin-tuna until the stocks recovered.

The proposal has met with support among a number of European Commission member states, and is scheduled to be voted upon at the next CITES general conference, which will be held in Doha, Qatar in March 2010. The Monacco proposal cited studies which report that Atlantic bluefin stocks have fallen close to 75% between 1957 and 2007, with a staggering 60% of that drop occuring in just the past decade, due to an acceleration in overfishing. The report noted that a number of populations within the fishery could be at risk of extinction.

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