Times of Malta, 21 January 2010

As has happened before, history is about to repeat itself. Back in 1992, the thriving cod fishing industry in Newfoundland, Canada came to a sudden and full stop when, at the start of the fishing season, no cod appeared. Overfishing allowed by decades of fisheries mismanagement was the main cause for this disaster that resulted in almost 40,000 people losing their livelihood and an ecosystem in complete state of decay. Now, many years after the collapse, fishermen are still waiting for the cod to return.

Cod catches grew threefold from an annual average of 500,000 tonnes in the first half of the 20th century to 1,500,000 tonnes in 1968. It took only 15 years between 1960 and 1975 for fishermen to catch as many cod as they had caught since John Cabot’s arrival in Newfoundland 500 years previously.

The glory days of high cod catches would soon end. In the 1980s, cod catches plummeted. They fell from 508,000 tonnes in 1982, to 475,000 tonnes in 1986, to 461,000 tonnes in 1988, to 384,000 tonnes in 1990 and to 183,000 tonnes in 1992. In 1996, four years after the imposition of the first moratorium, fishermen caught only 13,000 tonnes of cod.

The collapse of the cod fishery off Newfoundland, and the 1992 decision by Canada to impose an indefinite moratorium on the Grand Banks, is a dramatic example of the consequences of overfishing. Overfishing is when undersized fish are caught, when there are not enough adult fish to produce offspring and when the balance of the ecosystem is altered by overfishing.

Scientists then were adamant that the single main cause of the collapse of the industry was overfishing. Following the collapse of the northern cod stock, they published numerous papers documenting the unambiguous role of overfishing, which bureaucrats, politicians and industrialists did their best to discredit.

In the 21st century, we don’t talk much about cod anymore – the cod money has already been made and there is no more cod to fish. In 2010, we talk about the Bluefin tuna that is going the same way as the cod went nearly 20 years ago. Industrial forces backed by politicians are overfishing the species in much the same way as cod was in the 1990s, all subsidised by governments and bureaucrats.

We have not learned from history.

At the beginning of the 1970s, Bluefin tuna catches were about 20,000 tonnes a year but they increased to 45,000 tonnes a year by the mid-1990s. Today, in 2010, scientists estimate the total Bluefin tuna population in the East Atlantic and the Mediterranean to be less than 15,000 tonnes compared to the pre-1970 amount of over 100,000 tonnes before industrialised fishing started.

And, yet, the EU has heedlessly been pumping millions of euros to support the fishing fleet. Industrial fishing uses purse seine nets many kilometres long that can catch as many as 100 tons of fish in one haul. Fishing quotas are not being respected. Spotter planes are used illegally to make the process more efficient while the authorities have little or no tools to control these malpractices.

Tuna penning (or ranching) does not breed more individuals of the species but catches young fish and fattens them up for export when prices are right, further diminishing the existing breeding stock. The complexity of the tuna ranching business, its poor regulation and the extent of trade activities that usually involve several countries have helped build a cover for large illegal tuna catches. It’s called pirate fishing.

ICCAT (the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas) is the international commission that claims management authority over tuna and other big fish. Its scientists have recently warned that the breeding stocks of bluefin tuna are low and that the species is dangerously close to extinction.

What is being done? Not enough.

ICCAT has consistently set the total allowable catch (TAC) quotas above levels recommended by its scientists and the failure of its management measures is demonstrated by the continuously decreasing population. Recently-introduced new measures reduce the (TAC) from 28,500 to 13,500 metric tonnes. According to ICCAT, these measures give a 75 per cent chance that stocks remain stable and with a reasonable chance of improving over the next decade.

In simple words, this means that, even with the latest ICCAT measures, there is a 25 per cent probability that the Bluefin tuna will become extinct in the next 10 years, which, quite frankly, is not acceptable because one could reasonably want to have a 100 per cent assurance that the species will be saved.

Unfortunately, it is entirely possible that the population of a species will never recover from such a disaster. This can happen when a whole ecosystem changes during the decline of the species and the ecosystem’s changed food resources will no longer support a particular species. The species will just quietly die out. This is a possible scenario with jellyfish and tuna. In the natural course of events, tuna and jellyfish both feed on plankton while tuna also feed on jellyfish. However, mainly due to tuna overfishing and global warming, jellyfish populations have exploded – as we all know very well. The ecosystem has changed and now the increasing numbers of jellyfish are competing for plankton with the declining tuna population. The result is that tuna will not find enough plankton to eat and may will die out because of this.

Sustainable seafood is a movement that has gained momentum as more people become aware about overfishing and environmentally-destructive fishing methods. Sustainable seafood is seafood from either fished or farmed sources that can maintain or increase production in the future without jeopardising the ecosystems from which it was acquired. In general, slow-growing fish that reproduce late in life, such as tuna and swordfish, are vulnerable to overfishing. Seafood species that grow quickly and breed young, such as anchovies and sardines, are much more resistant to overfishing.

Encouragingly, in 2009, researchers in Australia managed for the first time to coax southern Bluefin tuna to breed in landlocked tanks, opening up the possibility of using fish farming as a way to save the species from the problems of overfishing in the wild.

Monaco has tabled a proposal with CITES, the UN agency against illegal wildlife trade, to place Atlantic and Mediterranean Bluefin tuna on the list of the world’s most endangered species in a move that could ban international trade of the fish. If the proposal were to be adopted by CITES, it would end international trade in the fish although local fishermen would still be allowed to sell their catches on domestic markets.

The author is a council member of Din l-Art Ħelwa.