Disappearing Tuna

The New York Times writes,

SUCURAJ, Croatia — Two decades ago, the channels that separate the Adriatic Islands here were brimming with giant bluefin tuna, a species so plentiful that tourists used to climb ladders by the sea to watch the schools swim by.

Today, these majestic predators are rarely if ever caught. “You have to work a lot harder to catch fish of any kind,” said Lubomir Petricivic, a fisherman who recently opened a restaurant in the harbor here. “Tuna? Impossible. We don’t have any; we can’t get it.”

The tuna population in the Mediterranean is nearing extinction, a new World Wildlife Fund report concludes, with catches down 80 percent over the past few years, even for high-tech trawlers that now comb remote corners of the sea in search of the hard-to-find fish.

“This is past the alarm stage,” said Simon Cripps, director of the global marine program at the World Wildlife Fund, who compares the situation to strip mining. “We are seeing a complete collapse of the tuna population. It could disappear and never come back.”

The tuna could go the way of the cod. If you were looking for solutions, where would you look? I would suggest Iceland, for the simple reason that there is probably no other country with stronger incentives to develop sustainable fisheries. Fish and fish products is about 70% of the value of Iceland’s exported goods.

Iceland has struggled and fought (during the Cod Wars) to get control of its marine resources. One turning point was in 1976 with the extension of Icelandic public property rights to the 200 mile fishing limit. Iceland then had to find out how to manage its fish stocks. Various schemes were tried, e.g. limits on the number of days per years a trawler could fish.

In 1990 a system of individual transferable quotas (ITQs) was established, based on a scientifically determined total allowable catch (TAC) for each species. The ITQs represent shares in the total allowable catch. The ITQs are permanent, perfectly divisible and transferable (with some restrictions). There is a strong system of monitoring and enforcement. There have been lots of disagreements and disputes between political parties, and the system is still evolving, but the Icelanders have gained a lot of experience making it work. They had to.

For other countries with fisheries management problems, there is no need to reinvent the wheel, they can try to learn from Iceland’s experience. Of course, in countries where fishing is less important than it is in Iceland, the political pressure to come up with a solution is not so strong.

(if you need some summer reading, I can recommend Mark Kurlansky’s Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World).

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