Earlier this week, Dr. Jane Lubchenco, Under Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere as well as NOAA Admisistrator – not to mention a member of President Obama’s Ocean Taskforce – finally broke the silence by officially weighing in on bluefin tuna.
Lubchenco announced that the United States is “sending a clear and definitive statement to the international community that the status quo is not acceptable.” She formally acknowledged the peril facing the Northern bluefin tuna, citing stock declines of 72% and 82% in the eastern and western populations, respectively. The good Doctor levels blame for these declines directly at the ineffectual International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT), as well as the irresponsible activities of certain countries that target bluefin in the Eastern Mediterranean.
Lubchenco calls for ICCAT to address overfishing by setting responsible quotas, increasing enforcement, and instituting fishing closures during spawning periods. She then goes on to declare the United States’ “strong support” for Monaco’s proposal to prohibit the international trade of the species by way of a CITES Appendix I listing.
Sounds great, right? And it is, in a way. It’s a strong proclamation that lets the world know the United States is seriously concerned about this issue. So why aren’t I out in the street right now, lighting fireworks and drinking to excess?
What’s more important than what Dr. Lubchenco said is what she didn’t say. Specifically, one particular word, the absence of which leaves me worried and somewhat dismayed.
That word is “sponsor.”
Lubchenco’s statement, while full of authority and righteous indignation, undercuts itself by failing to take up Monaco’s proposal whole-heartedly and champion it at the upcoming CITES meeting in March. Here’s what I mean:
Sponsoring the proposal would have meant that the United States would have submitted Monaco’s resolution to the CITES parties itself.
Strongly supporting the proposal means that the United States is behind the idea in theory, but won’t stand alone to bring it to the table for due consideration and a vote.
The United States’ government has cast its weight behind a plan that would theoretically repair ICCAT rather than seek endangered species status for the bluefin. And yes, there is some merit to this. If ICCAT had the capacity to set quotas based on ecologically sustainable yield (ESY) as well as the teeth to enforce them in the face of pirates and greedy European bureaucrats (you listening, Joe Borg?) – then it just might work. In fact, by demonstrating its capacity to rebuild the tuna stock in the face of unrelenting market pressure, it could even prove a model for other fishery management tools. But based on ICCAT’s shameful history, not to mention the infuriating myopia and relentless rapacity demonstrated by some of the countries participating in ICCAT, I am forced to remain skeptical.
While Lubchenco’s statement rings loudly, its effectiveness is yet to be determined. The gap between sponsorship and strong support is wide indeed – potentially wide enough to swallow up all that’s left of the once-mighty bluefin tuna.