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SFOS Journeys

Andy Seitz

Andy Seitz

Trip Report, Italy
September 2009

In August 2009, I was invited by the Tag-A-Giant Foundation (http://tagagiant.org/) to conduct satellite tagging of the mighty bluefin tuna in the Mediterranean Sea off both coasts of northern Italy. The Tag-A-Giant Foundation, with whom I have worked and collaborated for the past 12 years, is a non-profit organization dedicated to supporting scientific research, policy and conservation initiatives that promote a sustainable future for bluefin tuna.

The bluefin tuna is a fish of superlatives. It grows to 1,500 lbs, swims up to 50 miles per hour, crosses ocean basins in a little over a month and can fetch up to $175,000 for an individual fish on the Tokyo fish market. Because of this high price, the demand for bluefin tuna has caused severe overfishing of this species. The bluefin's slow growth rate and late sexual maturity further compound this problem which has caused a 90 percent decline in abundance since the 1970s. Despite warnings by fisheries scientists, overfishing continues. These scientists say that 7,500 tons is the annual sustainable catch limit, yet the fishing industry continues to harvest 60,000 tons of bluefin yearly, mostly in the Mediterranean Sea, which supports a $7.2 billion industry.

In 1994, the Tag-A-Giant program was started to study the ecology and biology of bluefin tuna to aid in conservation and stock rebuilding strategies. The project has pioneered electronic tagging of marine fish and Tag-A-Giant scientists have now tagged over 1,600 bluefin tuna around the entire Atlantic Ocean basin. As a member of the Tag-A-Giant project, I have been fortunate enough to deploy satellite tags on bluefin tuna in the Gulf of Mexico, North Carolina, Massachusetts, Ireland, Corsica and mainland France.

During summer 2009, a group of Italian sportfishers concerned with the future of the bluefin tuna contacted Tag-A-Giant and requested that the program send a scientist to satellite tag bluefin tuna in their home-waters. They offered to pay for all of the costs incurred by the scientist while in Italy, if the Tag-A-Giant program would pay for transportation to Italy and provide the satellite tags and tagging expertise. Because there is little knowledge of bluefin tuna in the Mediterranean, Tag-A-Giant jumped at the opportunity and requested that I conduct the field operations in Italy.

I accepted the invitation and traveled to Italy from 16-30 September 2009. During the first week of the trip, we fished in the Ligurian Sea, which is located in northwest Italy, close to the French Riviera. The weather was rather uncooperative (i.e., windy!) which typically causes bluefin tuna to inhabit deep water, making them difficult to catch. Because of this behavior, we only managed to catch and tag one small bluefin that weighed approximately 50 lbs. We then traveled to the Tuscany region of Italy and fished two days out of a lively port city called Livorno. Here, I was hosted by a man who has been tagging and releasing bluefin tuna in Italy for almost 20 years, somewhat of a rarity in Italy and definitely way ahead of his time. The weather was cooperative in Tuscany, but the fish were scarce and we did not manage to catch any bluefin. Finally, we traveled across the country to the northern Adriatic Sea to a small port named Porto Barricata, just south of Venice. Porto Barricata was hosting a catch-and-release fishing tournament for bluefin tuna and offered to allow me to satellite tag any fish that were caught. Fishing improved when we hooked four tuna that were approximately 400-500 lbs, but the anglers were unprepared for such large fish as they had not been in the Adriatic for almost 10 years. Unfortunately, we were not able to land any of these larger fish.

Despite my limited tagging accomplishments in Italy, the trip was a success. I was able to raise awareness of the importance of bluefin tuna conservation through several media outlets including the country's two largest sport fishing magazines, local television news, "Big Fish Adventures" on SKY Italia (a television program on a satellite network dedicated to outdoors programming), and a program dedicated to Tag-A-Giant on Rai TV (the Italian national television network). Because of this broad media coverage, sport anglers from across the country have offered financial and vessel support to continue satellite tagging of bluefin tuna in the Mediterranean Sea near Italy. By learning from the mistakes made this year, we are developing strategies for increasing our success in future tagging campaigns. Knowledge gained from this research will become increasingly important, especially in the face of calls for listing bluefin tuna under CITES Appendix I, which would ban all international trade of this species.

This trip was professionally and personally rewarding. It was an honor to be selected as the scientist to lead a high-visibility, international research effort to study and aid in the conservation of iconic marine fish that faces severe depletion and possibly even commercial extinction. Much of the media coverage will be distributed throughout the European Union and my participation will provide UAF and SFOS with significant international visibility. Personally, it was rewarding to work with a small group of concerned anglers on a grassroots effort to promote the conservation of bluefin tuna throughout the Mediterranean Sea. Hopefully, this visibility and continued collaboration with Tag-A-Giant and sport fishers in Italy will lead to more restrictive fisheries regulations and increased enforcement. These measures are needed to curtail the depletion of Atlantic bluefin tuna and ensure its sustainability in the future.