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Canada loses bid for more tuna, rebuffs push to protect sharks

A porbeagle shark, a species that was once fished to the brink of extinction in the frigid waters off the Atlantic during the 1960s, is pictured in this photograph taken in Canada July 31, 2007.

George Shaw/Reuters

Canada's attempt to increase the amount of a vulnerable species of tuna that can be fished out of the Atlantic Ocean has been shot down by other countries but Canadian negotiators have managed to block international efforts to protect an endangered type of shark.

Officials with the Federal Department of Fisheries were in Morocco over the past week to take part in a meeting of the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas, which is responsible for protecting the stocks of tuna and other similar species that live in the Atlantic.

That includes the massive Atlantic bluefin tuna, which the federal government is considering labelling as an endangered species under the Species At Risk Act and which scientists around the world say is in need of protection. The Canadian government has said fishing is the main threat to the tuna's viability and, despite efforts for the past 30 years to rebuild the population, there is little sign of an increase.

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Still, Canada proposed at the ICCAT meeting that the quota for bluefin caught in the western Atlantic be increased from 1,750 tonnes to 2,000 tonnes. The other countries in attendance said no.

The government did not respond Monday to questions about its position. Environmentalists say Canada is clearly offside with the international community when it comes to bluefin conservation.

"I think it is fair to say that there was a general feeling across the meeting that [Canada's proposal] was out of step, that there was very clear scientific advice that said maintain the quotas," said Amanda Nickson, the director of the U.S.-based Pew Environmental Group's global tuna conservation program, who was in Morocco for the gathering.

"The least risk to the population is to maintain the quota at 1,750 tonnes," Ms. Nickson said. "And the feeling in the room was all in line with that, with the exception of Canada and their proposal."

But, even if Canada didn't manage to increase the bluefin quota, it successfully defeated a move by the European Union to require that any porbeagle shark caught in an ICCAT fishery be released, said Pew shark expert Elizabeth Wilson.

"Unfortunately that proposal was not something that Canada was willing to accept," Ms. Wilson said. "We were hearing that there were some other countries that, when they heard rumours of things like an exemption for Canada, they said 'Well, if Canada is going to get an exemption, we want an exemption too.' And then the whole thing starts to fall apart."

The porbeagle is also known as "Canada's shark." Like the bluefin, it has been declared endangered by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada and is awaiting a designation under the country's Species At Risk Act.

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Overfishing of the porbeagle, which started in the 1960s, reduced its population by about 90 per cent over four decades but quotas have started it on the road to recovery.

As for the bluefin, its population on the East Coast has been severely depleted and currently stands at about 36 per cent of the 1970s levels. Japanese sushi aficionados consider it a delicacy and it can retail for upwards of $1,000 a pound, which makes it a valuable catch for East Coast fishermen.

Robert Chisholm, fisheries critic for the federal New Democrats, said it is critical that players on all sides of the Atlantic work co-operatively on the preservation of fish species.

"I am concerned about the obstreperousness of our negotiators because things aren't getting resolved," he said. "I know how important the bluefin tuna is to many communities on the Atlantic coast. But we've got to work with those organizations that have a mandate to conserve the stocks, to manage the stocks, and we've got to make sure that the fishermen and communities that count on that resource are going to be able to count on it for many years into the future."

PORBEAGLE SHARKS

Potential threat to human beings: Not much. None have ever been implicated in unprovoked attacks on humans.

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Size: Up to 3.7 metres (12 feet)

Lifespan: 25-46 years

Reproductive cycle: Oddly mirrors that of humans. Females become fertile at 13 and have a gestation period of about nine months.

Status under the Species At Risk Act: Endangered

Population estimate: 180,000 in the Northwest Atlantic. The sharks have lost 90 per cent of their population in the past 40 years.

The decline of the species: The porbeagle is one of the fastest swimmers in the sea but its numbers were severely depleted by overfishing in the 1960s, especially by the Norwegians.

The return of the species: Quotas that were introduced in 1998 and then cut in 2001 and 2006 have started to bring it back.

Source: Nature Canada, Government of Canada

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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

Gloria Galloway has been a journalist for almost 30 years. She worked at the Windsor Star, the Hamilton Spectator, the National Post, the Canadian Press and a number of small newspapers before being hired by The Globe and Mail as deputy national editor in 2001. Gloria returned to reporting two years later and joined the Ottawa bureau in 2004. More

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