Atlantic Bluefin Tuna in Danger, International Commission On the Hot Seat

BY Jenny Marder  November 17, 2010 at 5:59 PM EST

The Atlantic bluefin tuna has been devastated to near extinction by overfishing, pollution and lagging confidence in the agency tasked with protecting it.

Conservationists have slammed the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas for mismanaging the endangered fish. Two years ago, an independent review characterized the agency’s handling of tuna as an “international disgrace.” Today in Paris, the group began a series of meetings to decide the creature’s fate.

“It’s been an absolutely dismal disaster,” said Bill Fox, vice president of fisheries for the World Wildlife Fund.

The United States is an ICCAT member, and will be represented at the meeting by NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenko. “This is a very important meeting for ICCAT,” said Monica Allen of NOAA on Wednesday. “Its ability to effectively manage the fish stocks for which it is responsible has come under serious question and many will watch the outcome of this meeting to see if ICCAT can fulfill its responsibilities.”

ICCAT’s scientific advisers have called for protected spawning grounds and tighter restrictions on fishing. They want no more than 13,500 tons of tuna caught in the Eastern Atlantic, down from 25,000 tons per year. Many conservationists want that number at, or closer to, zero. Still unclear is the degree to which the Deepwater Horizon oil spill damaged a bluefin tuna spawning ground in the Northeast part of the Gulf.

“What we’re fighting for is the most valuable fish in the sea,” said Gerry Leape, a senior officer with the Pew Environment Group’s international marine policy unit. The taste of the tuna’s soft underbelly is so exquisite, he said, that a fish was once valued at $175,000. On principle, Leape has never tried the fish himself.

Japan’s bluefin tuna consumption far outweighs any other country. The lion’s share of the industry in Japan is controlled by Mitsubishi.

“The trouble with the Northern Hemisphere’s food taste on fish is we like top predators,” Leape says. “We like the salmon, we like the swordfish – that’s what we go after. But if you pick out a top predator, you have cascading impacts down the food chain.”

The meeting, which will stretch through Thanksgiving, will also focus on shark, sea turtles and North Atlantic swordfish.