As the world catches the taste for sushi, the Atlantic bluefin tuna has been dangerously overfished, with some experts saying the species is on the verge of collapse. A two-year investigation uncovers a deeply flawed monitoring system, with fisheries and even European governments exploiting loopholes to haul in more fish than they disclose. “Life on the Edge” series editor Steve Bradshaw discusses how his lead reporter traversed the Mediterranean to connect the dots.
"Looting the Seas" is a project by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists.
Video voice-over: Bluefin tuna: The rules that protect them don’t work, and we found out why.
Editor Steve Bradshaw: The challenge is to introduce a story, turn an investigation into a story. We filmed the lead reporter, Kate Wilson, actually doing some of the investigation. Because you’re following Kate and you want to know if she gets the story, it does work as a narrative.
Kate Wilson: I’m on my way to the port of Sete to talk to fishermen who have been supplying these ranches for years.
Bradshaw: We see Kate going to fishing ports, we see Kate talking to folks, we see Kate scribbling in her notebook. It sounds a bit dry, but because you’re following Kate and you want to know if she gets the story, it does work as a narrative. But is she the hero or the heroine? Well, not really. The hero or the heroine is the fish.
Video voice-over: Bluefin tuna sit near the top of the marine food chain. Overfishing has shrunk their numbers by around 75 percent. If tuna stocks collapse, it could affect the entire marine ecosystem.
Bradshaw: Other folks have done stuff on the oceans being plundered and the ecological effect of that. I think before, nobody’s really looked at the mechanics of how the looting, legal and sometimes illegal, takes place. In the case of tuna, we did have some information about the folks who monitor tuna fishing and what the state of their monitoring capacity was.
Wilson: When you look at the catch date, oftentimes, it’s different formats. So if you’re trying to find what was caught on what day, there’s no way to do that. You can use this for really good things, but there’s so many holes in the data that it’s not much better than a pile of papers.
Bradshaw: One of the questions we asked in bluefin was why the monitoring authorities didn’t have a proper computer monitoring system.
Wilson: Scientists say that they use this data to make recommendation on catch limits. How can they do that if 2008 won’t be complete for another two years?
Official: I have no idea. It depends. They are not completed? Tell me. The BCDs (bluefin catch documents) of 2008 are completed or not yet? We don’t know.
Wilson: They’re absolutely not complete. I’ve analyzed the data.
Official: Then why are you asking if you know?
Bradshaw: What you’re doing with a lot of these things – you’re not looking for a result in terms of a specific piece of legislation, but you’re trying to put stuff on the agenda, basically. You’re trying to heighten global awareness.
Video voice-over: This month, all ICCAT (International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas) member-states meet in Paris to consider the state of Atlantic bluefin tuna. Their own scientists calculate a 60 percent chance the stock can be stabilized. But they can’t be sure. They still don’t have reliable figures.