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Lessons from Cod Could Save Tuna

by Ellen Hardy
19 February 2008, at 12:00am

BOSTON - Continued mismanagement could force some tuna populations to quickly go the same way of cod, according to leading scientists.

During the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Annual Meeting in Boston this week, a group of leading natural and social scientists analysed the lessons learned from cod and recommended urgent actions to prevent further declines in tuna populations.

The symposium 'Last Best Chance for Tuna: Learning from the Cod Collapse', was set up to discuss, the threats faced by Tuna populations due to mismanagement and over fishing.

Just as cod was once perceived as Canada's "Newfoundland currency," tuna is largely considered the 'chicken of the sea' - cheap and plentiful. However, populations of certain tuna species are falling in both the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans.

There are stark similarities to the cod sector, says the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), which organised the symposium with the University of British Columbia.

History repeated?

Historical evidence shows that the landed value of cod in Atlantic Canada was at its peak of $1.4 billion in 1968, but it dropped to just $10 million by 2004. Trends for some tuna species are now cause for concern. In 2001, for example, landed value of yellowfin tuna in the Western Central Pacific Ocean was US$1.9 billion, but three years later it had dropped by more than 40 percent to US$1.1 billion, says WWF.

"Conventional fisheries wisdom did not work for the northwest Atlantic cod and it is now failing for tuna in some cases," said WWF's Katharine Newman, moderator for the panel. "We need to find solutions that advocate sustainable fishing starting right at the source like the Coral Triangle down to consumers' plates through MSC certification and public awareness," she said.

Even after a decade of intense protection, cod populations have not rebounded as fisheries scientists predicted they would. "Does the fault lie in the fishermen, the regulators, or the scientists. Or is the answer to be found in history?" asked author Mark Kurlansky.

Daniel Pauly of British Columbia's University said that the answer could lie with history. "Although we know much about Atlantic cod and bluefin tuna, we have not learned a thing from their history and we may lose them because of that," he said.

Andrew Rosenberg from the University of New Hampshire believed that by examining the cod case shows that historic and current fishing pressure and the unique characteristics that made cod vulnerable to exploitation, did contribute to its depletion.

Research Evidence

Innovative research to learn more about these apex predators is being implemented by scientists like Barbara Block at Stanford University. Her team is fitting tuna with data-logging satellite tags or implanted archival tags. to map key locations for bluefin tuna. The work may help protect the species from total population collapse.

From the other side of the world, Jose Ingles of WWF-Philippines spoke about the start of an imminent decline in high value fisheries. He said that abundant fish aggregating devices are resulting in significant juvenile bycatch, a severe threat to species like bigeye and yellowfin tunas.

"This hurts the economy and impacts the species," said Ingles. "If juvenile fish are allowed to mature, they would be worth more than $1.5 billion annually-significantly higher than the $236 million currently derived from juvenile catch," he explained.

New joint management between juvenile and adult yellowfin and bigeye tuna catching nations could result in millions of dollars for local economies, and bring a win-win outcome for fish and people, suggested Rashid Sumaila, economist with the University of British Columbia's.

"This approach could have prevented the depletion of cod stocks off Newfoundland and such balancing can reduce the chance of a similar fate befalling tuna stocks of the Coral Triangle," he said. "This panel discussion can only flag the very real danger that tuna populations face. What we need is to use all the diverse lessons we have learned from cod and galvanize global action for the fast-disappearing tuna," he added.

The symposium panel comprised: Mark Kurlansky, author; Andrew Rosenberg from the University of New Hampshire; Daniel Pauly and Rashid Sumaila of the University of British Columbia; Barbara Block from Stanford University; Rene Subido from RD Fishing Corporation; and Jose Ingles from WWF.

Ellen Hardy