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Attention Tuna Lovers: See Red When Thinking Blue

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Seriously fish eaters, lay off the bluefin, give it time to recover. Though the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas voted at its annual meeting in November to sharply reduce the fishing quota for bluefin tuna, biologists say the step doesn’t go far enough to save the species.

Bluefin tuna is one of the most valuable fish in the sea. A single fish can fetch $100,000 at market before it’s cut into sushi. Unfortunately, overharvesting (much of it illegal) has caused a 72 percent decline among adult bluefin tuna in the eastern Atlantic and Mediterranean over the last 50 years. The smaller western Atlantic stocks have shown similar declines but have now stabilized, partly because of rigorous compliance by the United States.

Though the latest commission vote establishes a lower fishing quota than ever before, and also sets new rules designed to reduce overfishing, even the commission figures there’s only a 60 percent chance that the species will recover by the year 2023. Others are even less optimistic. The chances of recovery are based on the assumption that fishermen will actually keep to the quotas that have been negotiated. But the fisheries, particularly around Europe, have a dreadful track record in implementing tuna quotas. Susan Lieberman at the Pew Environment Group says some European nations do a very poor job of enforcing the quotas.

Lieberman says the commission probably went as far as it did, because conservation groups, including hers, are trying to get bluefin tuna protected as an endangered species under a treaty called CITES. The government of Monaco has made it a formal proposal.

The U.S. government must join Monaco in its efforts to ban the bluefin tuna trade entirely. Such a listing would allow fishermen to sell bluefin domestically but would make the high-volume international trade illegal, finally giving tuna a chance to recover.

Though shutting down a fishery is a drastic step, scientists increasingly believe that it is the only way to save the fishery, and that it has to be done soon, before the species population reaches a point of no return. That happened to the North Atlantic codfish, while closing nursery areas to commercial fishing allowed the swordfish to rebound.

Tuna lovers, see red when thinking of blue fin and don't buy it. If we can lay off the bluefin for a while, it may have a fighting chance to recover. And when shopping for other fish, consider where and how the fish was caught. Read Here's the Catch to learn how to sort the good methods from the bad, making identifying sustainably harvested fish easier.

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