Hudson Canyon is a doglegged, miles-long gash that was carved out of the continental shelf during the last ice age, by a Hudson River that first met the ocean a very long way from where it does so today. Located about 100 miles southeast of New York City, it is the largest submarine canyon on the East Coast, and one of the largest in the world.
Hudson Canyon is also where, three decades ago, I encountered my first bigeye tuna, a 166-pound fish that came out of nowhere to grab a trolled lure, then rocketed back to the deep, though tethered to the surface by a thin nylon line.
I wasn’t the angler who caught that first bigeye; I was running the boat, and just left the controls at the last minute to sink a flying gaff in the tuna’s side. Still, when it lay on the deck, sides reflecting the sun, I celebrated its capture as much, if not more, than the angler himself.
That’s because bigeye are different.
Unlike bluefin or yellowfin tuna, they don’t come close to shore, nor do fishermen find hordes of them chasing bait on the surface. Instead, bigeye are a fish of deep waters, that seek out their prey, usually squid, along canyon walls, the face of the continental slope, and in mid-ocean gyres of clear, warm blue water that break off from the Gulf Stream and wander across the face of the sea.
On occasion they school, but they are seldom common. More often, bigeyes come one at a time, or in small packs that will pop up behind a boat to hit four, five or six lines at the same time, and turn an orderly cockpit into a scene of hopefully-controlled chaos. Back at the dock, captains brag about how they went “four for five”‘ when the tuna attacked. And when they attack, those on the boat need to do everything right, because if they miss that one chance, they might not get another for the rest of that trip. Or on the next trip. Or the one after that…
So it’s not hard to understand why bigeye tuna are a prized offshore catch.
They’re prized in the commercial fishery, too. Although bigeye, reaching a maximum size of about 400 pounds, don’t grow as large as bluefin tuna and are not anywhere near as well known as the charismatic “giants,” they support a more valuable commercial fishery, in which large numbers of small bigeye are caught in purse seines for the canned tuna market, while a lesser number of larger fish are caught on longlines and other hook-and-line gear, for eventual sale to sushi shops, other restaurants and the retail trade.
And that’s where the bigeye has gotten into trouble, for in the words of Paulus Tak, an officer of the Pew Charitable Trusts who works on tuna management issues, “Bottom line, there are simply too many boats in the water chasing too few fish.”
Because bigeye are a highly migratory species, which cross through many nations’ waters in the course of their migrations, they are managed by the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT). In 2015, ICCAT established a 65,000 metric ton (mt) annual catch limit, but it only applied to the seven nations that harvested the largest amount of bigeye tuna; other nations were not subject to any landings restrictions at all.
As a result, total Atlantic bigeye landings soared well beyond the catch limit established in 2015, exceeding 80,000 mt in 2017. Such landings are too high to allow the bigeye stock to rebuild (even the 65,000 mt limit established by ICCAT, if not exceeded, had only a 49% chance of restoring the population by 2028); instead, scientists who assessed the stock again in 2018 predicted that, unless bigeye landings were substantially reduced, the stock will collapse within the next 20 years.
Abundance has already fallen to just 20% of historical levels.
At its November 2018 meeting, ICCAT debated the bigeye management issue, but discussions went nowhere, as delegates elevated parochial interests above the long-term health of the bigeye stock.
Some scientists estimated that, if annual landings were cut to no more than 50,000 mt, there was a 70 percent chance that the bigeye population could be rebuilt within ten years. While the United States supported a 10-year rebuilding timeline, there was little political support for such a sharp reduction in harvest.
A number of nations did reach agreement on a 15-year rebuilding plan that would have reduced annual landings to 62,500 mt, required many smaller harvesters to abide by such limit, and restricted the use of fish attracting devices (FADs) that are deployed by purse seiners to aggregate large numbers of immature bigeye and make them far easier to harvest. Unfortunately, such measure ultimately failed to garner enough support, and could not be adopted.
European purse seiners, who are responsible for about one-third of all Atlantic bigeye landings, blamed the failure on longliners from Asia, which account for more than half of the bigeye harvest. A spokesman for the Spanish purse seiners alleged that the longliners “tried to avoid any measure that could affect their fleet.”
At the same time, fishing interests from some of the smaller harvesters that are currently exempt from catch limits, including Brazil, Senegal, Guatemala and Cape Verde, blocked efforts to include them among the regulated nations.
The various factions refused to engage in any meaningful effort to reach a compromise that would adequately protect and rebuild the bigeye. As Grantly Galland, a representative of the Pew Charitable Trusts who was present at the meeting, observed, “Everyone is to blame for this one. Each individual member is more concerned with its own priorities than finding consensus on a real recovery plan.”
In the face of such discord, the current 65,000 mt catch limit, applicable to just seven nations, was extended for another year, and some limitations on FADs were adopted.
Such measures will are not enough to halt the bigeye’s decline, and were condemned by John Henderschedt, Director of NOAA’s Fisheries’ Office of International Affairs and Seafood Inspection, who is one of the United States’ three ICCAT commissioners. Henderschedt stated, in part, that
“Earlier this year, a stock assessment confirmed that Atlantic bigeye tuna is overfished and subject to overfishing. The United States advocated strongly for the adoption of measures that would end overfishing immediately, rebuild the stock within 10 years, establish greater accountability to catch limits, and take appropriate account of the relative impact of various fisheries by reducing the catch of small bigeye tuna in purse seine fisheries. The United States is disappointed that ICCAT failed to adopt measures that will ensure the long-term sustainability of the bigeye tuna stock.”
There is no guarantee that such badly needed measures will be adopted next year, either, for as the head of South Africa’s ICCAT delegation noted, “The industry wants to make money and in the quickest way it can.”
But that’s just the kind of short-term thinking that ICCAT is supposed to avoid.
The Preamble to ICCAT’s Basic Texts, which established the Commission, states that “The Governments whose duly authorized representatives have subscribed hereto, considering their mutual interests in the populations of tuna and tuna-like fishes found in the Atlantic Ocean, and desiring to co-operate in maintaining the populations of these fishes at levels which will permit the maximum sustainable catch…resolve to conclude a Convention for the conservation of the resources of tuna and tuna-like fishes of the Atlantic Ocean…”
By failing to reach an agreement on management measures that will adequately conserve the bigeye, and restore its abundance to sustainable levels, ICCAT has betrayed its stated purpose, and the international agreement that created the organization.
And, far worse, it has betrayed the bigeye as well.