The Obama administration announced it will not sign on to a proposal to give greater protection for Atlantic bluefin tuna, a move that environmental groups had said was necessary to keep the fish from becoming extinct, but one that was fiercely opposed by U.S. fishermen.
The administration said in a statement that it "strongly" supports the proposal, first introduced by Monaco, but will delay adding the United States as a co-sponsor of the measure until the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tuna (ICCAT) takes further steps.
"ICCAT must take definitive action at its meeting next month for the conservation of Atlantic bluefin tuna. Failure to do so is not an option," said Jane Lubchenco, administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
Atlantic bluefin tuna is the largest of the tuna species, weighing up to several hundred pounds, and a fish that can fetch more than $100,000 in some international markets, most notably Japan. The main populations of the fish are in the Gulf of Mexico, along the Atlantic coast of the United States, and in the Mediterranean. Since the early 1970s, the population of bluefin tuna from the Gulf of Mexico has declined by 82 percent, according to 2008 data from the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas. Environmental groups have been ringing the alarms.
"The science, which is extremely good on this species, indicates that the population has been so depleted that it's headed for commercial extinction," Josh Reichert, managing director of the Pew Environment Group, told ABC News.
Reichert called today's decision "a lost opportunity."
"The Obama administration veered drastically off its 'use science to guide decision making' course by not backing this proposal to protect Atlantic bluefin tuna," he said in a statement. "As a result, the common sense conservation measures that would help stave off commercial extinction for this species are even further from becoming a reality."
Rich Ruias, executive director of the American Bluefin Tuna Association which had lobbied against the measure, called the decision an "exceptionally smart move on the part of NOAA and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service."
Scientists and environmental groups strongly urged the Obama administration to co-sponsor a measure that would list bluefin tuna on Appendix 1 of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).
Giving the bluefin a CITES listing would have banned U.S. fishermen from selling bluefin in international markets, but allow them to continue to sell here in this country. It would not put the fish on an endangered species list.
CITES is a 1975 international treaty that has played a key role in helping threatened animals, like whales, elephants, tigers and rhinoceroses. In 1989, a CITES listing protected elephants by stopping the international ivory trade.
This would have been the first time a major commercial fish was given such international protections. Environmental groups and scientists said it would allow the bluefin to recover and repopulate.
White House Weighs Options
Reichert had said that if the Obama administration decides to not co-sponsor the bluefin listing, it would constitute "a significant departure from its stated commitment to use science as a guide to managing our natural resources.
"As a result, the best vehicle we have to save these fish from commercial extinction may not be deployed, further accelerating the demise of what some people call the 'world's greatest fish,'" he said.
The next meeting of the parties to CITES is March 2010 in Doha, Qatar, but the deadline to submit proposals and co-sponsorships was today.
Bluefin tuna is not what Americans eat on sandwiches for lunch. It is an expensive tuna, used mostly for sushi, in high-end restaurants.
Environmental groups say U.S. fishermen should have a vested commercial interest in seeing the bluefin stock recover, but leaders in that industry disagree.
Ruias, of the American Bluefin Tuna Association, said his organization would "fight to our last breath" against a CITES listing for the fish because of the damaging impact it would have on U.S. commercial and recreational fishermen.
"The CITES listing would ban U.S. fishermen from shipping fish to Japan and Japan is a very good market destination for us, especially when the yen is at the level it's at now," Ruias told ABC News. "A CITES listing would hurt us dramatically" because the domestic market is not strong enough to maintain profitability.
Ruias estimated the monetary damage of the international trading ban to the U.S. commercial and recreational fishing industry at over $100 million a year.
Reichert said that bluefin tuna is a classic example of fisheries mismanagement in which good science has been sacrificed to politics and money.
"It's perhaps the most valuable fish in the sea, it generates significant income for those who catch it, and is in huge demand in Japan where it is highly prized for sushi," Reichert said.
Bluefin Tuna Population at Risk
Ruias dismisses the evidence that the bluefin is threatened to the point of extinction.
"There is not a credible scientist, in our view, in the world that would suggest that fishermen could fish a fish like bluefin tuna to biological extinction," Ruias said.
Ruias said the U.S. has "religiously followed scientific advice" since 1974 on quota reductions and other measures to protect the bluefin, and points the finger at Mediterranean countries for not taking bluefin tuna conservation seriously.
"An Appendix 1 listing to bluefin would punish, inflict severe economic injury, devastate fishing families," in the United States, Ruias stated in a letter to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service last month. "What possible justification can be given for such a cruel and unfair treatment of U.S. and Canadian fishermen in the West Atlantic?"
The CITES imposed ban on international trading could have lasted indefinitely or until scientists determined that the stock had recovered sufficiently.