Clueless about big tuna

fish.jpe What’s happening in the Science News section at the Washington Post? A recent story about bluefin tuna (Thunnus thynnus) made me wonder exactly what’s going on behind the journalist’s desk. The article in question is called “Advocates hope science can save big tuna”, published Dec. 24, 2007.

The Post article reviews scientific approaches that illustrate bluefin tuna migrations to and from spawning grounds in the Gulf of Mexico and the Mediterranean Sea, then notes the bluefin populations are plummeting, but finally surrenders the problem to “political will” and the federal government. This is less than I would expect from a Washington based commercial newspaper. You could get more information from blogs like this one.

So what’s the point of running the article on Christmas Eve in the Washington Post? Are the journalists reporting news here, or are they simply “awareness building”? As a conservationist, I appreciate any and all efforts to raise awareness about the plight of the bluefin tuna, but it’s aggravating to me that this particular story does not identify the real problem, nor the solution. The Post puts this important story in the hands of millions, but fails to deliver.


The authors interview several important researchers, but the quotes are put together like a patchwork quilt. Even worse, they’re innocuous. “We’re catching nothing” said NMFS Director Bill Hogarth. The conclusion of the article contradicts the title. “The law requires better stewardship than [government officials] sitting on their hands and doing nothing,” said Carl Safina. If the comments section had been left open on the online article, I may not have written this. I could have fumed there. But, “comments are closed for this item”. This wouldn’t happen at ScienceBlogs.

Let’s pick up where the Washington Post left off. They concluded the problem is a federal one. However, the United States is a signatory to the International Commission for Conservation of Atlantic Tuna (ICCAT), which means we must play by international rules. The only law that trumps international law is another international law. As a federal agency, NOAA Fisheries has their hands tied. If ICCAT says to fish Gulf of Mexico tuna during the spawning season, that’s what will happen. Safina half-jokingly called ICCAT the “International Conspiracy to Catch All Tuna” in his book Song for a Blue Ocean. The group is notorious for their failure to manage the decades old problem of declining tuna stocks. It has been suggested that commercial fishing interests control ICCAT.

Ultimately, to address the problem of declining Atlantic bluefin stocks in federal waters the United States will need to pursue one of three options: 1) withdraw from ICCAT, 2) mediate the ICCAT decisions or 3) find an international agreement to override their rulings. The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) would be my first candidate to overrule ICCAT. As the Mediterranean population of bluefin tuna continues to decline, the onus is upon us, meaning Canada, Mexico, and the United States to gain control of the North American fishery.

Peter Etnoyer (406 Posts)

PhD candidate at Texas A&M University- Corpus Christi and doctoral fellow Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies.





7 comments on “Clueless about big tuna
  1. the Post is, unfortunately, generally disappointing in their science reporting. the fact that they even ran a science article that wasn’t health or technology is pretty exciting to me…

  2. Great post. When is the last time science saved anything? In the battle for natural resources, it’s a tug of war between markets, money, politics, subsistence users and then, maybe a tad of science. I agree the 60-minute story (and p.s., that’s Randy Olson that pointed me towards the tube) lacked gusto but at least they interviewed an anthropologist at the Toyko fish market instead of a fisheries scientist. The extinction of bluefin tuna will be a topic for human behavioralists and free-market economists, not for scientists like Carl Safina who saw the collapse coming more than a decade ago.

  3. I think we should lobby the North American Commission for Environmental Cooperation (formed under a NAFTA side agreement) to make bluefin tuna a species of common conservation concern, then initiate a protected area strategy based on Block et al’s telemetry that fully protects bluefin in their primary spawning ground, the Gulf of Mexico. Importantly, support NOAA’s efforts to get a handle on the bluefin as bycatch issue, described at the old DSN link above. I agree that litigation is sometimes the best way to move things forward. One goal should be to implement a GoMx vessel monitoring program, including tri-national enforcement using the US Coast Guard and the Mexican equivalent. Engage the recreational fishing community and seek funding from their members and other tuna patrons. Whaddya say? Should we do it?

  4. Great post. When is the last time science saved anything? In the battle for natural resources, it’s a tug of war between markets, money, politics, subsistence users and then, maybe a tad of science. I agree the 60-minute story (and p.s., that’s Randy Olson that pointed me towards the tube) lacked gusto but at least they interviewed an anthropologist at the Toyko fish market instead of a fisheries scientist. The extinction of bluefin tuna will be a topic for human behavioralists and free-market economists, not for scientists like Carl Safina who saw the collapse coming more than a decade ago.

    Posted by: Jennifer L. Jacquet | January 14, 2008 2:50 PM

    I think Jennifer is right. Too many of today’s problems will end up interesting reading in history books rather than being solved while there is still time.
    Dave Briggs :~)

  5. “When is the last time science saved anything?”

    Thanks, Jennifer.
    I’m think I’m gonna frame that and hang it on my wall.
    It definitely puts things in perspective.

  6. I finally realized Rachel Carson’s book “Silent Spring” was the last time science saved something. It’s been a while, but there is a legacy of science detecting the effect of DDT on eggshells. We can probably attribute a small surviving population of white pelicans here in Corpus Christi to her work.

    I also noticed Carl Safina has a great perspective piece on his experience trying to work with ICCAT at the link below. The dude is way ticked off. He would probably agree there is a need to secede.

    http://carlsafina.wordpress.com/2007/11/28/more-bluefin-blues/

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