Editor's note: This story is part of a series of online exclusives about natural phenomena and human endeavors we'd like to see come to an end. They are connected with the September 2010 special issue of Scientific American called "The End".
The meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, or CITES (pronounced "sight-eez") this past March was a decided defeat for the Atlantic bluefin tuna. Delegates voted 72 to 43 not to restrict fishing and international trade of the tuna so prized for its sushi that stocks are estimated to be at 15 percent of their historic levels. Although dismayed, conservationists remain upbeat, because they have at their disposal other management tools that could save the species.
Those strategies belong to the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT), which actually has the job to manage tuna and tunalike species (a point argued by Japan and other opponents of a CITIES trade ban). Conservationists had forged ahead with a CITES effort anyway, because "we felt that a CITES ban would be a useful part of a package of tools to help reduce incentives for going over the quota," says Rebecca Lent, director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Office of International Affairs and U.S. commissioner for ICCAT.
ICCAT, one of many regional fishery management organizations around the world, used a different tool to rebuild Atlantic swordfish populations (pdf) last September—namely, quotas. "The most important thing was setting the quotas at the appropriate level," Lent says, so that both the fish and the fishery economy can be sustained. To help enforce those limits, ICCAT tracked international trade to find countries that were catching (and selling) more fish than they reported. And domestically, the U.S. prohibited fisheries from waters where juvenile swordfish were getting killed as bycatch.
Still, getting countries to adhere to quotas is "the hardest challenge internationally," Lent says. Catch share programs, in which regional fishery councils divvy up quota shares to fishermen, could help ease this burden. Instead of creating a "struggle over a shrinking pie, you make [fishermen into] stakeholders, and that generates an incentive to be better stewards," says Frank Alcock, director of the Marine Policy Institute at the Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota, Fla. In the Pacific Northwest, for example, the program helped cut halibut fishing levels by one quarter. …