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Why have all the fish gone?

3 September 2010 5 Comments
In the second part of Anna Hager’s investigation, she looks at what is being done to cultivate the Bluefin tuna industry from near collapse.


Overfishing has left the tuna industry in ruin but attempts to cultivate the fish in captivity have fallen flat. Image: © OCEANA / Keith Ellenbogen

Recent moves to cut Southern Bluefin tuna (SBT) quotas due to overfishing could have detrimental effects on the local Australian fishing industry, which generates big money.

The fishing industry says that quota cuts are not based on current data and are therefore partly unjustified.

The Australian Southern Bluefin Industry Association (ASBTIA) says that before recent quota cuts, export of Southern Bluefin reached over $300 million per annum, generating over 5,000 jobs throughout Australia.

They also say that the tuna business is internationally competitive and critically important to the Eyre Peninsula’s economy – Australia’s fishing industry hub.

“Tuna is one of the largest seafood industries in Australia, so it was a major blow,” Jeffriess says.

“It meant substantial job losses, and future uncertainty. Tuna is by far the largest employer on the Eyre Peninsula, and the tuna industry had invested in new industries such as tourism. So the impact has been not just within the tuna industry, it has been felt by every part of the Eyre Peninsula economy.”

According to ASBTIA CEO Brian Jeffriess, the quota cut in 2009 for example was based on data up to 2006. This data included the effects of large-scale illegal catch from 1985 to 2006. But, with the 2008 to 2010 statistics available now, the data suggests a possible recovery of stock.

Fishermen in the area share this sentiment. Peter Dennis from Triplebay charters in Port Lincoln says that he has received reports from local fishermen of sightings of large schools of tuna around the Great Australian Bight in 2010.

“It seems to be a seasonal type of thing rather than stocks running down,” he says.

Because of improvement in the numbers of bluefin sighted in recent times, Dennis says fishermen in Port Lincoln are therefore not happy to accept trade bans and quota cuts.

“They weren’t happy with it of course. They are lobbying the government and trying to get some of the quota back because of the numbers of fish that have been sighted out there,” he says.

Glenn Sant from wildlife trade monitors, TRAFFIC also says that it is difficult for any industry to have to reduce the amount of fish it harvests and to still make money.

“The fact is though that unless the amount of catch is reduced overall in the fishery there will not be recovery of the stock” he says.

Despite increased efforts, no alternatives to wild fishing are currently available

In an effort to secure healthy tuna stocks for the future, countries around the world are attempting to breed bluefin tuna in captivity. However, the question is whether such a migratory species, that can grow up to sizes of 450kg, can be domesticated.

According to many scientists this will be near impossible but might be the only way to save the species, as our insatiable hunger for the expensive sushi and sashimi ingredient doesn’t appear to be subsiding.

Maria Jose Cornax from OCEANA in Spain says that at the current stage of research and knowledge available, bluefin tuna cannot be bred in captivity, at least not at commercial levels.

She says that breeding bluefin in captivity “is unsustainable due to the high percentage of fish protein they need to grow.”

Cornax says, “For fattening one kilogram of bluefin you need around 15 to 20 kilograms of other wild fish species [like] mackerel, squid and sardines.”

A further problem is that, in most cases, the ranching of tuna involves the catching of wild tuna and fattening them in cages.

“It’s worth clarifying that all farming referred to with bluefin tuna actually catches wild stock that is then fattened for the market. Hence they do not contribute to the rebuilding of stocks,” says Sant from TRAFFIC.

“Tuna farming is officially considered as a post-harvesting practice rather than one based in direct capture and thus avoids every regional and international rule set up to manage fisheries in the Mediterranean.”

Besides wild catches and tuna farming there has been another development,which aims to rescue the tuna industry from collapse.

Last year in a world-first breakthrough, aquaculture pioneer Clean Seas Tuna Limited in conjunction with scientists from the University of the Sunshine Coast, the South Australian Research and Development Institute, the Fisheries Research and Development Corporation and the Australian Seafood Cooperative Research Centre successfully recreated the breeding patterns of the Southern Bluefin breed of tuna.

“Not only have images such as these never been seen by human eyes, but the creation of these fish has been entirely dependent on human endeavour,” says Clean Seas chairman Hagen Stehr.

In 2010 Clean Seas reports that it has completed its third consecutive annual on-shore Southern Bluefin Tuna spawning program.

“The 2009-10 spawning trials have proved to be highly successful in terms of being able to repeat spawning under controlled conditions; advance spawning commencement by two months from March to January; replicate our success in rearing fingerlings in locations up to 2,900 kilometres from Arno Bay; and extending the spawning period by six weeks to 12 weeks,” says Clean Seas managing director Clifford Ashby.

But, despite these efforts to breed bluefin tuna in captivity there is no indication at this stage of any contribution to rebuilding stocks now or in the near future.

“The bluefin tuna species has a biology that means that they are very easily overfished. That has to do with how long they live and how long they take to mature. In captivity that is very difficult too. In trade we don’t see bluefin that has been bred in captivity,” says Sant from TRAFFIC.

The verdict looks all but rosy

The problem is that with bluefin tuna fetching around $800 US per kilo on the Japanese market, the disappearance of this species in our oceans comes to no surprise.

Unfortunately dropping levels only seems to spark demand, with prices rising at an astronomic rate.

As of January 2010, a comprehensive global Catch Documentation has been implemented by the Commission for Conservation of Southern Bluefin Tuna (CCSBT).

“All whole SBT must be tagged at the time of kill with a uniquely numbered tag and the tag must remain on the SBT until the first point of domestic sale. SBT without tags between these points must not be accepted,” says Bob Kennedy from the CCSBT.

The sad reality is that bluefin tuna is only an example of where we are driving our oceans. According to Cornax, 90 per cent of our predators have already disappeared, so it is not only a matter of losing fish on our table.

“A Spanish researcher said that biodiversity is like a plane. Will it be able to fly when it is constantly losing small pieces of its engine?”

Read part one of Anna Hager‘s investigation, Why is the tuna industry so blue? here.

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