With populations dangerously low for a number of fish species, environmentalists set standards for how many fish could be caught each year. For awhile, these regulations seemed to work, and the populations of endangered fish remained stable. However, it appears that fishers have been trying to get around fishing regulations in the last several years. They report far lower numbers of fish caught than numbers of fish sold.
This tactic is used with alarming frequency in the bluefin tuna industry. According to a recent study by the Pew Environment Group, over two times as many tons of bluefin were caught as recorded. Trade figures of bluefin catches in 2009 and 2010 pointed to a total of 70,500 tons. The discrepancy in number of bluefin caught and number of bluefin sold is worrying both environmentalists and fishing industry experts. The concerned members of the fishing industry worry that current practices could deplete future populations, thus causing a real calamity in the next several years.
What makes these problems even more puzzling is the fact that they are occurring immediately after extensive reforms in enforcement put forth by the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT). These reforms were supposed to have ensured better accuracy in reporting. Not only did they not work, reporting accuracy is far worse than it was before 2009.
The ICCAT reforms of 2008 most focused on paperwork methods. It was looking to root out any fraud or delays in reporting so that all information would be completely accurate. The ICCAT reforms also involved setting fishing quotas higher than what most environmentalists recommended. It is especially concerning that the industry failed to come even close to staying within the bound of the quotes, given that these quotas were higher than they should have been.
The Pew Environment Group's study involved looking through trade data, including EU exports and Japanese customs documents. Researchers compared this data to the catch reports provided by the ICCAT. The Pew Environment Group did not include outright illegal fishing in its estimates, so it may be greatly underestimating the real number of bluefin tuna caught between 2009 and 2010.
Although there is likely plenty of illegal fishing occurring, researchers feel that the main problem is legal purse seine fleet. After bluefin tuna are caught, they are often sent over to Spanish ranches to be fattened up. The Pew study points to a number of factors that could make the reporting of transferred fish inaccurate. It is nearly impossible to know exactly how many fish are being transferred into a ranch, so it is difficult for professionals to accurately report numbers. This is especially true of purse seine fleets without sufficient observers employed.
The results of the Pew Environment Group's study raise a number of concerns for environmentalists. Bluefin tuna are already a threatened species, so if this trend continues, they may soon be classified as endangered.