Globe Editorial

To stop overfishing of tuna, ban foreign sales of bluefins

March 1, 2010

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BLUEFIN TUNA is the great money fish of the Atlantic, but overfishing by the countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea threatens to cause a complete collapse of the stock. The United States should take the lead in stopping international trade of this fish.

Eighty percent of the catch of Atlantic bluefin tuna goes to Japan, where it is prized for sushi. Recently, one fish sold for $177,000 at a Japanese auction. The two main options for keeping the catch at a sustainable level include the current approach - a system of annual quotas set by the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas - and a proposed ban on international sales of the bluefin as an endangered species.

Conservation advocates say Mediterranean fishermen have routinely exceeded the quotas with impunity. They favor a ban on international sales to drive down the value of the fish and give the species a chance to rebound over five to 10 years. Scientists say current numbers of the fish are less than 20 percent of what they were in the 1970s.

The problem with prohibiting foreign sales of Atlantic bluefins under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species is that countries are allowed to exempt themselves from a ban. Japan recently announced it would do just this. A ban would be deeply unpopular there. That country’s consul general in Boston, Masaru Tsuji, says the Japanese “share the common purpose to sustain the stocks.’’ But he said his country prefers enforcement through the tuna-conservation panel and not a ban on foreign sales of the fish as an endangered species. A ban would only succeed if the United States and other countries apply maximum diplomatic pressure on Japan to change course.

About 50 percent of Japan’s bluefin tuna comes from the Atlantic, but the country has also taken the lead in developing Kindai, a farmed variety of bluefin in which the fish are raised from eggs hatched from other lab-raised fish. The ban would not affect fishing of the lower-grade tunas that end up in cans.

The European Commission has proposed a compromise in which the endangered species organization would table the ban on international sales of bluefin until 2011, giving the tuna-conservation group a last chance to take tougher actions of its own.

But that delay would just lead to further depletion of the stock. The United States should support a ban this year, even though it would at least temporarily hurt export sales by US fishermen, who have stayed within their allotted quotas. Without a ban, it will not be long before no one, in the North Atlantic or the Mediterranean, has any bluefin to catch.

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