Taking Stock: Southern Bluefin on the Line: Southern Bluefin Tuna Is Classified as Endangered and Yet, Is Still Heavily Fished Internationally. Management of the Stock Is the Ultimate Fisheries Case Study, a Highly-Strung Balancing Act Involving Science, Long-Term Personal, Diplomatic and Political Relationships, Cultural Sensitivities and, of Course, Money

By McGhee, Karen | Ecos, April-June 2004 | Go to article overview

Taking Stock: Southern Bluefin on the Line: Southern Bluefin Tuna Is Classified as Endangered and Yet, Is Still Heavily Fished Internationally. Management of the Stock Is the Ultimate Fisheries Case Study, a Highly-Strung Balancing Act Involving Science, Long-Term Personal, Diplomatic and Political Relationships, Cultural Sensitivities and, of Course, Money


McGhee, Karen, Ecos


IT WAS Dean Lukin's unprecedented Olympic weightlifting gold medal for Australia at the 1984 Los Angeles Games that first shone a public spotlight on the nation's tuna fishing industry. Memorable images of Lukin pole-fishing southern bluefin tuna (SBT) from the back of his dad's boat off southern Australia left little doubt as to how the unassuming sportsman developed his legendary capabilities for hoisting huge weights.

These days, the industry has more of a reputation for building bank balances than muscle. South Australia's Port Lincoln, where the industry is based, is thriving and has become one of Australia's wealthiest towns.

This prosperity, however, is a relatively recent development and the industry is not naive about its potential for decline. It's had a history of fluctuating fortunes and, just over a decade ago, hit rock bottom due to stock declines. It was a crisis that saw many of the hard working entrepreneurial Croatian immigrants and their families, who built the industry from nothing in the 1950s, lacing bankruptcy.

While there's cautious optimism within the Australian industry that the future continues to be bright, some scientists and conservationists have been warning that the planet's SBT stock might not be able to continue supporting current catch quotas. In fact the Red List of Threatened Species, maintained by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), has since 1996 categorised the southern bluefin tuna (Thunnus maccoyii) as critically endangered. It's an assessment that, by definition, designates the species as 'facing an extremely high risk of extinction in the wild in the immediate future.'

Anna Willock, Traffic Oceania's Senior Fisheries Advisor, agrees it strikes many people as 'surprising' that a species assigned such a conservation status by an internationally respected body continues to be commercially exploited by Australia.

'For other species [with a similar] conservation status, it would certainly be anathema to think you would continue taking a commercial harvest,' she says. 'Part of the defence against that is wrapped into this idea that unless there is change at the international level, any moves towards [reducing or closing[ the fishery in Australia would be to little effect and that engagement in the fishery and the processes involved is a better step from a conservation perspective:

The industry itself, however, doesn't believe it has witnessed signs that the stock is lacing any sort of collapse and neither does it agree with the IUCN's conservation status for SBT.

The listing appears to be based on the fact that the stock's parental biomass is now a mere fraction of what it once was. Few associated with the SBT industry, either domestically or internationally, dispute this. But there is hot debate about what this means exactly. Is the stock in imminent danger of collapse? Can it continue to sustain current catch quotas?

Brian Jeffriess, President of the Tuna Boat Owners Association of Australia and Deputy Chair of the Australian Fisheries Management Authority, believes the critically endangered listing is unwarranted. He says the IUCN has failed to respond adequately to his association's repeated requests to secure documented evidence explaining the rationale behind SBT's Red List entry.

'I don't think any of us has any really definitive idea about the state of the stock at all,' he says.

Jeffriess argues that if there were clear signs of collapse, it would certainly be in the industry's long-term interests to respond accordingly.

'My job, even though I work for the industry association, is sometimes to tell [the fishers] news they don't want to hear,' Jeffriess explains. 'So I'd have no fear in saying if the stock was in extreme difficulties?

Nevertheless, the Australia Government's Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry lists the stock generally as 'overfished' and the spawning stock as 'severely depleted'. …

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Taking Stock: Southern Bluefin on the Line: Southern Bluefin Tuna Is Classified as Endangered and Yet, Is Still Heavily Fished Internationally. Management of the Stock Is the Ultimate Fisheries Case Study, a Highly-Strung Balancing Act Involving Science, Long-Term Personal, Diplomatic and Political Relationships, Cultural Sensitivities and, of Course, Money
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