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Bluefin Tuna Back in UK Waters

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Bluefin Tuna are back in the seas around the UK after decades of decline and absence. It has been proposed this could be due to warming seas rather than species recovery. After generations of overfishing, pollution and lack of food, it is astonishing how resilient these Tuna and other species are in their survival and wondrous that they should be able to return at all. What is not so wondrous is human nature. The Angling Trust are now petitioning for the protection status for these fish to be changed to establish a catch and release licensed fishery in what seems to me to be a case of self gratification and financial profit over sensible environmental concern.

New research by Dr Robin Faillettaz from the University of Lille (France), his French co-workers Drs Gregory Beaugrand and Eric Goberville, and Dr Richard Kirby from the UK – as part of the scientific programme CLIMIBIO (www.climibio.univ-lille.fr/) – has revealed that warmer seas can explain the reappearance of tuna around the UK.

Dr Richard Kirby says “Bluefin tuna have been extensively overfished during the 20th century and the stock was close to its lowest in 1990, a fact that further indicates the recent changes in distribution are most likely environmentally driven rather than due to fisheries management and stock recovery. Before we further exploit bluefin tuna either commercially or recreationally for sport fishing, we should consider whether it would be better to protect them by making the UK’s seas a safe space for one of the ocean’s most endangered top fish.”

I asked him for more information and he sent me the following report:

“Bluefin tuna are back in the sea around the UK after decades of absence and a new study says that warming seas can explain why. Bluefin tuna are one of the biggest, most valuable, most sought after, and most endangered fish in the oceans. Sport fishermen excited at the prospect of catching a fish that can grow to over 900kg have already launched a UK campaign to allow recreational fishing for one of game fishing’s top targets. But should we catch and exploit this endangered species or should we make UK waters a safe space for this incredible fish? Important questions to answer are why has this endangered fish suddenly returned to the UK after an absence of nearly 40 years and are bluefin tuna now more abundant or have they just changed in their distribution?

CLIMIBIO’s research shows that the disappearance and reappearance of bluefin tuna in European waters can be explained by hydroclimatic variability due to the Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation (AMO), a northern hemisphere climatic oscillation that increases the sea temperature when in its positive phase like it is now.

To come to their conclusion, the scientists examined the changing abundance and distribution of bluefin tuna in the Atlantic Ocean over the last 200 years. They combined two modelling approaches, focusing on the intensity of the catches over time and on the distribution of the fish’s occurrence, i.e. when it was observed or caught. Their results are unequivocal: the AMO is the major driver influencing both the abundance and the distribution of the bluefin tuna.

The Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation affects complex atmospheric and oceanographic processes in the northern hemisphere including the strength and direction of ocean currents, drought on land, and even the frequency and intensity of Atlantic hurricanes. Approximately every 60 to 120 years the AMO switches between positive and negative phases to create a basin-scale shift in the distribution of Atlantic bluefin tuna. During a warm AMO phase, such as since the mid-1990s, bluefin tuna forage as far north as Greenland, Iceland and Norway and almost disappear from the central and south Atlantic. During its previous warm phase – at the middle of the 20th century – the North Sea had a bluefin tuna fishery that rivalled the Mediterranean and the Bluefin Tunny sportfishing club – known worldwide – was founded in Scarborough. However, during a cold AMO phase, such as that between 1963-1995, bluefin tuna move south and are more frequently found in the western, central, and even southern Atlantic, with few fish caught above 45°N. Dr Faillettaz says that “The ecological effects of the AMO have long been overlooked and our results represent a breakthrough in understanding the history of bluefin tuna in the North Atlantic.”

In fact, the most striking example of the effect of the AMO on bluefin tuna is the sudden collapse of the large Nordic bluefin tuna fishery in 1963. The collapse coincides perfectly with the most rapid known switch in the AMO from its highest to its lowest recorded value in only two years. After that switch tuna also vacated the North Sea, and the conditions remained unfavourable for bluefin tuna in the northern Atlantic until the late 1990s when it started to reappear around the UK.

The scientists expect that bluefin tuna will continue to migrate to the UK and North Sea waters every year until the AMO reverses to a cold phase. However, they also highlight that the additional effect of global warming on sea temperatures will make the future response of bluefin tuna to changes in the AMO uncertain. Further to the effect of the AMO on where and when bluefin tuna occur in the Atlantic, the study also found that this climatic oscillation influences their recruitment, i.e., how many juvenile bluefin tuna grow to become adults.

Dr Faillettaz said that “when water temperature increases during a positive AMO, bluefin tuna move further north. However, the most positive phases of the AMO also have a detrimental effect upon recruitment in the Mediterranean Sea, which is currently the most important spawning ground, and that will affect adult abundance a few years later. If the AMO stays in a highly positive phase for several years, we may encounter more bluefin tuna in our waters, but the overall population could actually be decreasing.”

Consequently, Dr Beaugrand warns that “global warming superimposed upon the AMO is likely to alter the now familiar patterns we have seen in bluefin tuna over the last four centuries. Increasing global temperatures may cause Atlantic bluefin tuna to persist in the Nordic region and shrink the species distribution in the Atlantic Ocean, and it may even cause the fish to disappear from the Mediterranean Sea, which is currently the most important fishery.”

Dr Goberville also raises another important observation saying that “because bluefin tuna are so noticeable, they are also an indicator of current temperature driven changes in our seas that are occurring throughout the marine food chain, from the plankton to fish and seabirds”.

The Atlantic bluefin tuna fishery indeed encompasses most of the problems seen in fisheries around the world, including fleet overcapacity and political mismanagement; the species’ distribution crosses exclusive economic zones and spans international, open-access waters (i.e. the entire North Atlantic, from the Mediterranean Sea to the Gulf of Mexico). Added to that, the long-term fluctuation in Atlantic bluefin tuna abundance was hitherto understood poorly, which represents a fundamental gap in this fish’s sustainable management.

Dr Kirby says that “we have shown why bluefin tuna occur when and where in the North Atlantic and what may influence their recruitment and abundance, and this is fundamental to understanding the management of a fish that is endangered due to overfishing. Bluefin tuna have been extensively overfished during the 20th century and the stock was close to its lowest in 1990, a fact that further indicates the recent changes in distribution are most likely environmentally driven rather than due to fisheries management and stock recovery.”

Before we further exploit bluefin tuna either commercially or recreationally for sport fishing, we should consider whether it would be better to protect them by making the UK’s seas a safe space for one of the ocean’s most endangered top fish.”

The lead author Dr Faillettaz concludes: “Our results demonstrate that local changes in Atlantic bluefin tuna abundance can reflect large-scale shifts in a species’ distribution that are unrelated to improvements or worsening of a stock’s abundance. In this context we hope that our study will highlight the need to consider the environment when planning the sustainable management of all migratory fish species.”

For further information

Dr Richard Kirby

E-mail: Richard.Kirby@planktonpundit.org

Dr Robin Faillettaz

E-mail: Robin.Faillettaz@univ-lille1.fr

For further reading

Could big-game fishing return to the UK?

Warming Seas linked to bluefin tuna surge in UK waters

Calls to fish endangered bluefin tuna

Giant tuna causes ‘frenzy’ at salmon farm

Jeff Goodman is the Conservation editor and also the Underwater Videography Editor for Scubaverse.com. Jeff is an award winning TV wildlife and underwater cameraman and film maker. With over 10,000 dives to his credit he has dived in many different environments around the world.

Marine Life & Conservation

Review: David Attenborough: A Life On Our Planet

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Regular contributors, CJ & Mike from Bimble in the Blue, review the Netlix documentary: David Attenborough: A Life On Our Planet

David Attenborough’s latest and arguably most important documentary to date is now showing on Netflix.  It is, in his own words, his “witness statement” of a unique life exploring and documenting the wonders of the natural world.

Attenborough looks back and realizes that the previously gradual changes he witnessed (animal species becoming harder to find and fewer wild spaces) have now become vastly more widespread and noticeable. As the human population increased, so has the level of atmospheric carbon dioxide, while the amount of wilderness has decreased.  His conclusion: human activity and man-made climate change have accelerated the pace of biodiversity loss.  This not only imperils the majority of natural habitats and creatures on Earth, but also the very future of humankind.

From images of lush green landscapes we journey with him over time to revisit these places, now wastelands. One of the most haunting is the contrast between early footage of orangutans swinging through the rainforest, to recent images of an orangutan clinging onto a lone tree devoid of all but one branch in the wreckage of a deforested site. Attenborough then makes a statement that has stuck with me since watching “A Life On This Planet”: that though we undoubtably have an obligation to care for the natural world, it’s not just about saving other species.  It is about saving ourselves.  His drive and determination to advocate and spread this message as much as possible at the age of 94 is both impressive and humbling, yet Attenborough manages to make this serious subject an unexpectedly positive learning experience.

In the final chapter of the movie Attenborough turns from the bleak reality of the destruction of Earth’s biodiversity, and offers a lifeline of hope and positivity. We can, he tells us, reverse the damage we have caused, we can save our species and the wonders of the natural world, and it can be done with just a few conceptually simple actions.  It’s enough to enthuse even the most jaded and pessimistic of conservationists!  Attenborough has an amazing ability to awaken our love of the natural world and now he shows us our future is in our hands. It’s time to act.  But we must start now and it must be a united effort.

You don’t have to be a scuba diver to be impressed with the eloquence of David Attenborough’s words, or his powerful yet simple message. We are self-confessed Attenborough super fans, but I don’t think anyone could contest that this is a stunning 1 hour and 20 minutes of hard hitting brilliance. The film closes with the comment, “Who else needs to see it?” The answer is all of us.  We highly recommend this documentary to everyone. Put simply if you watch no other documentary this year, watch this one.

For more from CJ and Mike please visit their website here.

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Marine Life & Conservation

Review: My Octopus Teacher

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Regular contributors, CJ & Mike from Bimble in the Blue, review the Netflix documentary: My Octopus Teacher

My Octopus Teacher is the story of how filmmaker Craig Foster befriends a common octopus in the kelp forests off of the Cape Town coast.  Mike and I love to watch all things underwater and nature-based and so eagerly sat down to this documentary film, a new September arrival on Netflix.

Watch the trailer here:

After burning out at work Foster finds fascination and a deep connection with nature when spending time freediving at his favourite local spot.  In a sequence familiar to those who watched the “Green Seas” episode of Blue Planet 2, he comes across an octopus camouflaging itself with shells.  With his curiosity piqued, he begins to seek out the octopus on all of his dives, finding delight in its seemingly strange behaviours, learning what he can from the scientific literature and slowing working to gain the mollusc’s trust on his daily visits to her world.

My Octopus Teacher portrays a very anthropomorphised view of our subject and Foster’s relationship with her.  His conclusions tend to be more emotional than scientific and his eagerness to find similarities between himself and the octopus shows a great sentimentality.  However, you cannot help but be captivated by the incredible mutual curiosity and bond developing before you.  This relationship, and the stunning scenes of the kelp forest with its diverse inhabitants make for a deeply absorbing viewing experience.  There is some fantastic cephalopod behaviour, from the octopus adapting her hunting tactics for different prey, to strategies for outwitting predators and incredible colour and shape morphology.  Foster is also keen to point out how little we know about octopuses and that there is a great opportunity to learn something with every dive.

One of my favourite observations made by Foster at the end of the film is that by going into the water for liberation from daily life’s concerns and dramas, he realised how precious these wild places are.  As he starts to care about all the animals there, even the most minuscule, he comes to find that each one is both important and vulnerable.  Foster finds that his relationship with the octopus changes him and he feels a part of the kelp forest rather than just a visitor, an experience he then shares with his son.  To me Foster’s insight that we must connect with an environment in order to be truly motivated to protect it resonated very strongly.  For those fortunate enough to fall in love with our wilder environments and connect with them, seeing it mirrored in this documentary is quite moving.

Overall we very much enjoyed the film, especially the weird and wonderful behaviours caught on screen and the story as it unfolds.  Though our first reaction was one of pure jealousy (that Foster has such a stunning local dive spot and coastal property!) we soon moved past the envy and found My Octopus Teacher to be a very relaxing and enjoyable evening’s entertainment, which we highly recommend.

For more from CJ and Mike please visit their website here.

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