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The myth of bluefin abundance Add to ...

If you are a conscientious global-citizen type American like me, you suffer a blush of shame whenever a Canadian alights. Canada signed the Kyoto Protocol on climate change; the United States didn't. Canada approved the creation of the International Criminal Court; the U.S. has failed to do so. Gay marriage is legal throughout Canada; 46 of our 50 states refuse to allow it.

But there is one arena where Canada disappoints: fixing the global fisheries crisis. This particular Canadian shortcoming has come into view this week in Paris as delegates to the annual meeting of the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas debate how to save the giant Atlantic bluefin tuna, one of the most valuable and charismatic fish in the sea.

Unfortunately, in Paris, things are touch-and-go for the bluefin. In an opening statement issued at the outset of proceedings, the Canadian delegation rejoiced in an "abundance of fish" in Canadian waters, and there are rumblings that some in the Canadian delegation want an increase in the amount of bluefin the country's fishermen can kill in 2011.

This would not be surprising given Canada's record over the past half-century. In the 1960s, fishermen in the Maritimes used to catch these 250-kilogram-plus fish for sport and regularly drag them to the town dump because they didn't like their bloody taste. But now that Japanese buy bluefin for prices that can exceed $10,000 (U.S.) a fish, Canadian ICCAT delegates have voted in the past for catch limits that put the stock at risk.

True, in recent years, the mostly rod-and-reel Canadian fishery has been limited to very short seasons and less than 500 tonnes of fish annually. But at this point, any fishery at all puts the bluefin at risk. In the past 25 years, the bluefin population has plummeted by more than 82 per cent in the Western Atlantic. Last spring, in an attempt to circumvent the failed ICCAT process, both the United States and European Union moved to list Atlantic bluefin as an endangered species - an act that would have banned Canadians from selling it to Japan. Once again, Canada erred, siding with Japan, Tunisia and other historical bluefin abusers to block the trade ban.

This year, Canadians are excited about bluefin abundance because several good "year classes" of fish have "recruited" to adult size over the last decade and migrated into Maritime waters. There are indeed a fair amount of fish available for Canadians to catch. But this kind of short-term, false recovery is something that frequently occurs with fisheries, masking a broader unstable population trend.

As Andre Boustany, a post-doctoral tuna researcher at Duke University wrote, Canadian regulators may not be taking into account "that there are several years with almost no recruitment behind those good ones, so when looking at the overall picture, it becomes quite a bit less rosy." In other words, by ramping up fishing based on a momentary population increase, Canadians would cut their breeding stock out from under themselves - a scenario that sadly mirrors the famously destroyed Canadian cod fishery.

The negative effects of the Canadian fishery are further amplified when the provenance of Canadian bluefin is considered. Nearly all Canadian bluefin hail from the "Western" population that spawns exclusively in the Gulf of Mexico, where the BP oil spill befouled parts of the breeding grounds. It will be crucial to protect Gulf-spawned bluefin until the spill clears.

But there is a chance for Canada to protect the bluefin's future. Two difficult but necessary solutions have been suggested at the ICCAT meeting: First, to continue reductions in catch limits until bluefin re-establish real and consistent reproductive momentum, and second, to close breeding grounds in the Gulf of Mexico and Mediterranean to commercial fishing during spawning season. Many scientists believe these actions would be enough to bring bluefin back to commercial viability. (While regulators are at it, they could support a landmark EU proposal to protect endangered sharks and pledge to more stringently limit by-catch of endangered sea turtles.)

Take this bit of advice from the citizen of a country that too often ignores the power of good behaviour: Setting goals for sustainable fisheries and sticking to them is a noble thing to do with broad symbolic effect.

Canada is a positive moral role model in North America and I am glad that I still feel a shamed blush when a Canadian comes on the scene. I'd be happy to blush even harder if Canada made a long-term commitment to bringing back the bluefin and avoided making too much of tentative signs of recovery. A truly good global citizen is a rational one, and one that should behave just as rationally at sea as on land.

Paul Greenberg is the author of Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food.

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