The international supply of bluefin tuna, which is worth millions of dollars to Canadian fishermen, is being threatened by operators in the Mediterranean who are illegally overharvesting the endangered and valuable fish.
The American-based Pew Environment Group released a study Monday showing that the amount of Atlantic bluefin tuna traded on the global market in 2010 exceeded the official international quota by 141 per cent.
And the gap is widening, Pew says. In 2008, the amount traded exceeded the quota by just 31 per cent. Neither year's figures account for black-market bluefin that are not recorded in national or international trade databases.
The main culprits in the overharvesting of the fish, which travel from one side of the Atlantic Ocean to the other, are Spain, Italy, Malta and France, Pew says. The industry goes back generations in the Mediterranean, where the fish are corralled in nets, called purse seines, and fattened in so-called fish ranches until they are ready for sale.
Bluefin that is harvested in excess of yearly quotas set by the International Commission for the Conservative of Atlantic Tuna (ICCAT) is sold on the European market using false or non-existent documents. It is an illegal venture made more enticing by the fact that a single fish can fetch more than $450,000.
The Pew report comes on the eve of a meeting in Ottawa this week between the four major players in the bluefin industry – Canada, the United States, the European Union and Japan, the country that is the main market for the fish.
Canada opposed a ban on export of bluefin tuna in 2010. And, while the meeting's participants are unlikely to reach a consensus on what should be done to prevent further decline of the species, the Pew group says efforts should at least be made to stem the illegal trade.
Lee Crockett, Pew's director of Atlantic bluefin conservation, says his group recommends the implementation of an electronic documentation system to keep track of the catch. The existing paper system, he said, is rife with fraud and misinformation.
And, as an enhancement to the electronic documentation system, Mr. Crockett said, a bar code should be attached to each fish as it is killed that "follows them from the ocean to the table."
Canada is a main player in ICCAT, and Mr. Crockett said he hopes Canadian officials will support quick implementation of an electronic system. A full meeting of ICCAT will be held in Turkey in November, when the Pew group says tough action on compliance should be taken.
The bluefin, which has been listed as an endangered species in this country, can still be harvested both commercially and recreationally. The industry is worth about $10-million annually in Canada, mostly in Prince Edward Island and Nova Scotia.
The population of bluefin off the coasts of Canada has remained relatively stable for the past decade, but is estimated to be about 10 per cent of what it was when the stocks were healthy.
Any depletion in the Mediterranean stocks will put additional pressure on the Canadian population, said Boris Worm, a professor of marine conservation biology at Dalhousie University in Halifax.
Canada removes a significant number of the fish every year, he said. "But we are also not fishing it as hard as the Mediterranean population. The Mediterranean population has been in free fall over the last 10 years while our population has been stable."
Prof. Worm praised the idea of attaching a bar code to each harvested fish. If it's not possible to rein in the illegal trade, he said, "this species is at enormous risk of going down ever further and possibly going extinct."