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Local anglers urge relaxation of Bluefin rules after international conservation body says species no longer endangered

A Bluefin tuna chases flying fish in Gibraltar waters. Photo by Johnny Bugeja

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has declared that Atlantic Bluefin tuna is no long an endangered species, prompting local anglers to call for a relaxation of rules limiting how much of the prized fish can be caught in any given year.

The Gibraltar Government welcomed the news but said it will await further information from the international body that regulates the fishery before taking any decision on whether to change the allowable catch.

Over the years tuna season has been restricted, typically lasting a few weeks in the summer months, with tight controls over the number of fish caught.

But now that the IUCN has changed the status of the prized fish from ‘endangered’ to being of ‘least concern’, leaving local tuna anglers feeling “vindicated” in the arguments they have made over the years that the species was recovering.

For years environmental groups have called for a ban on catching tuna, or at least for the practice to be curbed.

Following the IUCN’s decision, the Gibraltar Government, however, refrained from confirming whether or not this new status would lead to a change in current measures to limit the fishery.

A spokesman said the Government is waiting to hear from International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT), the international body that regulates the fishery.

“The Government will await the response of ICCAT, as they are the international governing body on tuna fishing and our laws are based on their requirements,” the spokesman said.

“While Gibraltar is not a part of ICCAT it is important for our international reputation and we are consistent with the organisation’s guidelines.”

The spokesman added the removal from the endangered list clearly shows the importance of protection and indeed is vindication of the international controls to which fishing of the species has been subject over the years.

For the Gibraltar Tuna Fishing Club, the decision from the IUCN shows the “incredible recovery” of the prized fish and they will continue to promote sustainable fishing.

“The announcement made by the IUCN over the weekend that Atlantic Bluefin Tuna is no longer endangered as a species, is entirely in line with what we have been saying as a Club for years now,” Samuel Marrache, spokesperson for the GTFC, said.

“Gone are the days that bluefin tuna fishing can be tarnished by labelling this species as ‘endangered’.”

“The reality is that over the last few years the species has made an incredible recovery. As we have said before, any Gibraltarian with a boat can tell you that there have never been as many Bluefin tuna in our waters as there are today.”

“In fact, anecdotally, fishermen will also tell you that other species are being decimated by Bluefin tuna. Mackerel, squid and other species commonly found in BGTW are taking a huge hit from the ever-increasing number of hungry bluefin tuna in our waters.”

“It is important to note that the GTFC has never, and will never, advocate a free for all when it comes to bluefin tuna fishing.”

“We strongly support the sustainable fishing of bluefin tuna in our waters and the latest update from the IUCN demonstrates that there is scope to expand this programme over the coming years.”

The move to classing Atlantic Bluefin tuna to being of least concern means it now has the same conversation status mackerel and mullet, the GTFC said.

The Club added the IUCN also announced over the weekend that the bluefin tuna population has increased by a “staggering” 22% in the last four decades.

“This means that population stocks are well above the pre-mid-2000 population crash levels,” it said.

This, the Club added, is proof their position on tuna fishing over the past few years has been “undoubtedly correct”.

“The IUCN, which the Department of the Environment is a member of, has been called ‘the most authoritative guide to species’ by GONHS and other local conservation bodies,” the Club said.

They added the ESG had called for a ban on fishing any species classed as endangered by the IUCN.

“Given the removal of bluefin tuna from the endangered list, the Club looks forward to working with these organisations to promoting the sustainable fishing of bluefin tuna in BGTW,” the Club said.

It is also working on proposals to put to the Department in light of this news in order to allow Gibraltarians to continue fishing bluefin tuna outside of the very limited time-period afforded to them in the summer months.

One of the club’s proposals will include an increased quota system over the summer and also allow fishermen to have monthly quotas throughout the year.

They said this will enable anglers to further enjoy this fishing and also provide scientific records on the abundance of this species during previously unstudied periods of the year.

The Government however said it has not yet received any proposals, but that any suggestions will be considered following discussion with the Fishing Working Group and the Nature Conservancy Council.

But the club’s proposals faced strong rebuke from the Environmental Safety Group, who believed the change in classification must not be as “a ticket to year round fishing”.

“As conservationists the group naturally welcomes the recovery in numbers of the Bluefin Tuna by 22% and hopes the species continues to stabilise and grow further,” the ESG said.

“The ESG has opposed the fishing of this animal for sport from Gibraltar, both in principle, and because of its recently precarious situation in terms of dwindling numbers. It is also concerned to see IUCN cite a number of other marine species threatened with extinction.”

The group said the recovery of tuna numbers and other species also relies upon the health of oceans, on climate change and impacts from overfishing which all present additional stresses on wildlife.

The Nautilus Project (TNP) told the Chronicle they are cautiously optimistic about the change in conservation status of the Atlantic bluefin tuna.

“We note that such a drastic change in conservation status is not common for species listed as endangered,” a spokesman said.

“Consequently, we feel the responsible thing to do is to understand the assessment criteria for this change and have already been in touch with the Bruce Collette from the IUCN Tuna and Billfish Specialist Group for further clarification.”

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