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If ever an angry fish decided to defy humans, I would fight with the fish.
-- Shigeru Kayano

In a move that should have come long ago, the Obama administration announced its support for an international ban on commercial exploitation of the Atlantic bluefin tuna. This means that the administration is taking a strong stance in advance of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) meeting in Doha, Qatar in 9 days. This move is important because a ban on commercial fishing of the bluefin has "floundered" (sorry, I could not resist the pun) because of lukewarm support by the United States and the European Union, coupled with outright opposition by Japan. Please join me for a discussion of the fight to save a truly magnificent creature from stupid human predation.

Why the bluefin is being loved to death

The Atlantic bluefin (Thunnus thynnus) is a large apex predator. It is fast, has a big appetite, and covers a lot of ground to find food and breed. In their prime, bluefins can grow to more than 9 feet in length and weigh over 1400 pounds. The Atlantic bluefin spawn in the Gulf of Mexico. They only have to fear large sharks, orcas, and especially humans.

The bluefin is prized by sports fishing enthusiasts because it puts up a big fight when hooked. However, it is commercial fishing that is putting the bluefin at risk. Unfortunately, the bluefin is absolutely delicious and prized for sushi. The combination of dwindling supplies and high demand means a single bluefin can bring in close to $200,000 (over $150 per pound). Tasty and valuable is a deadly combination for the bluefin.

For more fun facts on the bluefin, see National Marine Fisheries Service.

Bluefins in action:

Too little, too late?

Human predation of the bluefin reached its peak during the 1960s and 1970s. Here are the smoking guns:

1960s – Large purse seine fishery on juvenile bluefin tuna for canneries emerges off mid-Atlantic coast
1966 – International Convention for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas is signed creating the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT)
1960s-1970s – Large Japanese and U.S. pelagic longline fishery develops in the Gulf of Mexico for adult bluefin tuna
1970s – Value of bluefin soars as sushi and fresh steaks in international markets, particularly in Japan, and fishing pressure increases dramatically

National Marine Fisheries Service

One yardstick applied to the sustainable harvest of fish species is Maximum Sustainable Yield (MSY). MSY can be defined simply as the largest average catch of a species that can be taken from a wild population under existing environmental conditions and maintain a stable population. Commercial harvests ignored MSY guidelines in an exploitation frenzy. As shown in the graph below, commercial harvests in the 1960s and 1970s were far above the MSY values and continued until the population neared the brink of extinction.


The bluefin population has plummeted to approximately 3% of levels recorded in the mid-1950's. Here you can see the shrinkage in the population of sexually mature bluefin.


International conservation efforts began in ernest in 1966 with the formation of the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT). The efforts of the ICCAT have allowed some stabilization of the bluefin population but continue to allow commercial quotas that prevent any rebound. Since 1995, ICCAT has monitored discrepancies between catch reported and tons commercially sold. Estimates of the unreported catch now rival reported harvest amounts, making compliance a serious problem and increasing pressure for a commercial ban to allow the bluefin population to recover to more sustainable levels. In 2009, the unreported harvest of bluefins was 50% higher than the sanctioned harvest.

The official quota for 2009 was 19,950 tonnes, set by the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas, but the true annual catch is estimated at around 50,000 tonnes.


The bluefins pick up an important champion

By 2006, conservation groups like EarthJustice began to fight for more extensive restrictions on bluefin harvest. EarthJustice filed suit against the National Marine Fisheries Service to stop longline harvesting of the bluefin in the Gulf of Mexico, particularly during spawning season.

Despite initially sending mixed signals, the Obama administration is poised to fight for the bluefins. It appears that much of the credit should go to Tom Strickland.

Late last year, Monaco proposed listing Atlantic bluefin tuna under the treaty's Appendix I, which amounts to a total ban. The Obama administration did not immediately endorse the proposal, a move that sparked widespread criticism from American marine scientists and ocean activists. But Tom Strickland, assistant secretary for fish and wildlife and parks at the U.S. Department of the Interior, privately backed the proposal from the outset.


"We are literally at a moment where if we don't get this right, we could see this very, very special species really at risk for survival," said Strickland, who will lead the U.S. delegation to CITES between March 13 and 25.

Washington Post, March 3, 2010

The outcome of the CITES meetings is uncertain as two-thirds of member nations have to agree to a commercial ban. The United States coming on board as a supporter of the ban is critical and European countries have signaled greater willingness to join. Japan, which consumes 80% of commercially sold bluefin, is strongly opposed.

What is wrong with Japan?

Ignorance appears to play some role in the willingness of the Japanese people to consume fish on the brink of extinction. Paul Eccleston of Fish2Fork, a sustainable fishing advocacy organization, provides some interesting perspective on the Japanese consumer. Researchers from the U.S. and Norway conducted focus groups and surveys of Japanese consumers. The focus groups revealed little awareness of overfishing and the importance of consumer support for sustainable practices.

But the study revealed that most shoppers know nothing about the eco label system that identifies produce as being from sustainable and well-managed fisheries. Some had never even heard about over-fishing before.

They were sceptical about how humans could ‘manage’ fish stocks and one woman shopper told researchers: “There can’t be a shortage of fish – just look at how much there is in the supermarkets”.

The survey of 3700 consumers provided further evidence of the lack of awareness of overfishing and revealed that the Japanese tend to discount information coming from anyone other than their own government.

The study also found that Japanese people are more likely to accept information about seafood if it came from their own government rather than outside agencies such as the UN and NGOs.

The Japanese government has been silent on the threat to many fish species because of overfishing.

Associate Professor Yuko Onozak of Stavanger University told the Seafood Summit in Paris: “The Japanese are not aware of any problems with the sea. They don’t see it. They don’t hear it. They don’t think it is their problem.

The first step is to get them to acknowledge that there is a problem in the first place. We have to better educate the Japanese before the problem can be solved.”

It is the classic fish-or-the-egg question. Are the attitudes of the Japanese people passively shaped by their government? Or do the policies of the Japanese government mirror the attitudes of the people?

I began with a quote from Shigeru Kayano, a member of the Ainu indigenous ethnic group and a member of Japanese parliament. The quote was part of a larger speech given in 1994 on environmental policies. Here is more of that speech (quoted from the blog of Joy Harjo, a favorite poet and musician of mine).

Do they ever think about the right of the fish in the river? This reminds me of the Minamata Disease [mercury poisoning which started in the 1950's in a southern local village near the ocean caused by industrial waste]...the first victim was the fish. Who ever thought about the pains and mortification of the fish and the shellfish who could not appeal to, or have a charanke with humans? Did anyone ever apologize to them? If ever an angry fish decided to defy humans, I would fight with the fish. We should respect the rights of all the living things. Why don't you listen to the trees, the fish, and gods of water, as we, the Ainu people,do?"

We should listen to the fish and the Atlantic bluefin tuna are asking for our help.

GreenRoots is a new environmental series created by Meteor Blades and Patriot Daily for Daily Kos. This series provides a forum for educating, brainstorming, discussing and taking action on various environmental topics.

Please join a variety of hosts on Sunday, Tuesday, and Thursday at 6 pm PDT.   Each Wednesday is hosted by FishOutofWater.

Originally posted to DWG on Thu Mar 04, 2010 at 06:12 PM PST.


Odds of passing a commercial ban for bluefin tuna:

3%1 votes
28%9 votes
34%11 votes
34%11 votes

| 32 votes | Vote | Results

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Comment Preferences

  •  I'd tip your jar but it apparently fled when it (7+ / 0-)

    sighted the Japanese fishing vessels. There is small group of us that go out for sushi once a week. I've gotten them to be aware of this issue and while we all loved toro it is off our menu. I asked one of the chefs at the resturaunt if he knew about the ban and said it really didn't matter to them, it was getting so expensive they didn't like carrying it anymore.

    Has anyone noticed the "Invisible Hand" is still giving us the bird?

    by ontheleftcoast on Thu Mar 04, 2010 at 06:17:52 PM PST

    •  OK, that was wierd (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      trashablanca, DWG

      You're diary appeared to be missing it's tip jar and yet there it is as comment #1. DK hiccup I guess.

      Has anyone noticed the "Invisible Hand" is still giving us the bird?

      by ontheleftcoast on Thu Mar 04, 2010 at 06:18:50 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

    •  Cost might be a saving grace (6+ / 0-)

      It is too bad that responsible management practices were not implemented long before the population reached this point. It would take a 5-10 moratorium to allow the bluefin to recover to levels that would permit careful commercial fishing.

      Please help the people of Haiti

      by DWG on Thu Mar 04, 2010 at 06:21:49 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  High prices pay fishermen to kill the last fish (10+ / 0-)

        High fuel prices have helped protect fish, however. Cheap oil has a high environmental cost.

        look for my DK Greenroots diary series Wednesday evening. "It's the planet, stupid."

        by FishOutofWater on Thu Mar 04, 2010 at 06:24:01 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

        •  Just to put the value of bluefin in perspective (9+ / 0-)

          The spot market price for silver is about $17 per troy ounce. Which puts silver at around $238 per pound compared to $150 for the fish. So bluefin tuna is closing in on silver in value. Talk about "mining" the riches of the sea.

          Has anyone noticed the "Invisible Hand" is still giving us the bird?

          by ontheleftcoast on Thu Mar 04, 2010 at 06:38:58 PM PST

          [ Parent ]

        •  I've never understood (3+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          RunawayRose, Simplify, ontheleftcoast

          the tendency to kill every last one of something because you "just gotta have it." When something is gone, really gone, then what will you eat? Memories? Why not stop eating it for a few years and let the creature come back? I no longer eat any bluefin or yellowfin tuna. I haven't eaten swordfish or shark for years. Not only should we not be eating the apex predators for biological reasons, they are full of mercury and PCBs. I still eat filter feeders like clams and oysters, but even they will become more and more poisoned as time goes on and the ocean becomes more polluted. Unless you are a marginal fisher in a gathering society dependent on the local fishery, you really shouldn't be eating seafood right now.

          Mal: "...So then the Shepherd says to the Companion, "Well, a good goat'll do that."

          by crose on Thu Mar 04, 2010 at 07:53:28 PM PST

          [ Parent ]

          •  This scenario has played out before (2+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:
            Simplify, allep10

            Think of the passenger pigeon. Hunted to extinction in the early 1900's as meat for slaves. Or the great auk for its eggs and feathers. The last few of the species aren't usually hunted down, but instead the population becomes so devestated it can't recover, even when commercialization is stopped. I'm afraid that is the ultimate fate of the bluefin.

            Has anyone noticed the "Invisible Hand" is still giving us the bird?

            by ontheleftcoast on Thu Mar 04, 2010 at 08:07:15 PM PST

            [ Parent ]

          •  Tragedy of the commons (3+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:
            RunawayRose, allep10, RLMiller

            If you don't grab what you can someone else will. If someone else does the resource will be wiped out anyway, so might as well grab what you can while it's still there. The only way out is social compact: "mutual coercion mutually agreed upon", in Garret Hardin's words.

          •  Sustainable fisheries, fished sustainably (0+ / 0-)

            There are still sustainable fisheries, some of which are managed sustainably. I live in a part of the country where the majority of fish available to me are from fisheries that meet the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch "Best" rating or their "Good Alternatives" rating, and the majority of seafood on their "supergreen" (eat in preference to anything else) list is available to me readily as well, in many - perhaps most - cases, all year round due to people maintaining things like Dungeness crabs in tanks. I would rather eat a Dungeness crab than any other kind, not just because it's from a sustainable fishery, but because they're what I grew up eating. To me, West Coast fish are comfort food, and since wild Alaskan salmon still meets Monterey Bay's "do eat" criteria, and I'm supposed to eat animal protein because of my medical conditions, I'm going to eat fish if I can determine where and how it was caught or raised.

            I don't get fish at the supermarket for the most part unless I know where it's coming from. For instance, during Dungeness crab season, I know that the crabs they have at the market were from a sustainable fishery, because the crab fishery up here is one such, and so I might get one. If I want to get a salmon, I'm going over to the Pike Place Market, where I can ask the fishmonger where it was caught and how. Chances are good that they'll have signs out already with that information on it. "Alaska troll-caught king" is not only sustainably caught and from a sustainable fishery, I can be reasonably sure it was swimming around a day or two ago and that the fishing boat that brought it down from Alaska is based locally and provides good local jobs. Why wouldn't I want to support all of that?

            So I think your statement might warrant qualification. If you live in an area with a lot of seafood that is locally or semi-locally produced and meets the objective standards at Monterey Bay Aquarium of being what they recommend that you choose, go ahead and eat it, but only eat stuff that's on those lists and avoid everything else.

            Swordfish is OK - it's even recommended if it's caught certain places and in certain ways. If you can ascertain that it meets those standards, go ahead and eat it, too, but only - ONLY - if it meets those standards. All imported swordfish is on the Avoid list and I do unless I can verify that it meets Monterey's standards. I avoided it entirely for years and years, decades, until the fishery was again sustainable, and now it's a rare treat, if I can eat it with a clear environmental conscience.

            Living kidney donor needed; type B, O, or incompatible (with paired donation). Drop me a note (see profile).

            by Kitsap River on Fri Mar 05, 2010 at 03:43:02 PM PST

            [ Parent ]

  •  The bluefin tuna must be saved. (11+ / 0-)

    I don't know what's wrong with Japan. They lie about whale killing calling it "research" when it's clearly not. They are propping up a dying industry in whaling.

    They love eating tuna but they won't admit they are loving tuna to death. Again, I suspect that political forces cause them to protect an industry until it kills every fish.

    I guess they aren't that different from senator Rockefeller and coal.

    look for my DK Greenroots diary series Wednesday evening. "It's the planet, stupid."

    by FishOutofWater on Thu Mar 04, 2010 at 06:20:19 PM PST

    •  I suspect the two are connected (5+ / 0-)

      They are worried that the whale ban will encourage other commercial bans of fish like the bluefin. Since they are the world's primary consumer, there is strong sense of not liking to be told what to do, even if the overwhelming evidence indicates that it is the correct thing to do under the circumstances.

      Most Japanese do not like the taste of whale and they are feeding to school kids to try to develop a taste for it. By contrast, bluefin is prized on the sushi menu.

      Coal is such a big part of the WV economy whereas the bluefin is just being consumed as a luxury item. They only have been 50 to 100 boats primarily harvesting bluefin. Most of the supply is imported from European fleets. All in all, a commercial ban would have little impact on the Japanese economy, either from lost fishing revenues or from sushi restaurants. Obstinacy in the face of luxury rather than necessity is very difficult for me to get my head around. That being said, the long-term damage to the WV economy will be far greater than the short-term benefits from coal so both cases are just painful examples of failed human intellect.

      Please help the people of Haiti

      by DWG on Thu Mar 04, 2010 at 06:35:39 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  That sucks, tuna is the one fish I like. Most (9+ / 0-)

    restaurants serve yellow fin (I have lived in gulf coast area 10yrs).  I haven't paid atttention to what sushi bars serve.  I will now thanks.

    •  Most in the states don't serve it (5+ / 0-)

      The cost factor. If I can offer a suggestion. Check out Fish2Fork. They have lists of restaurants that serve sustainable catches and lists of what to avoid. I highly recommend the site. The Environmental Defense Fund also has a nice printable guide to sustainable fish.

      Please help the people of Haiti

      by DWG on Thu Mar 04, 2010 at 06:44:12 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  Fish2Fork (0+ / 0-)

        Among a few other factors (which I can understand them downrating it for), I found them downrating a Seattle seafood restaurant that is a big one with tourists because it serves halibut.

        Halibut - Pacific halibut - is right there in the Monterey Bay Aquarium's "best choices" list, and I highly doubt a Seattle restaurant serving halibut is going to serve anything else. I didn't even know halibut existed in the Atlantic; we never see it here, never. We get plenty of good Pacific halibut from the sustainable fishery to the north and there is no need to haul it all the way across the country. I'll bet Atlantic halibut doesn't even taste the same and I know that diners would notice that.

        Not all halibut is the same. If I were visiting the East Coast I would avoid it; even if I never knew that there were halibut in the Atlantic, I would still choose something else, because why eat cross-country what I can readily get at home? On the East Coast I would probably choose something I can't get so readily at home, a nice Maine lobster (on the "good alternatives" list) or Arctic char. We simply don't see char over here at all.

        I wouldn't leave home without a current copy of the pocket guides from Monterey Bay, because I'm pretty up on what to eat and what to avoid at home but much less so for other areas of the country. I am going to eat fish; my doctor wants me to, my dialysis dietitian wants me to, and I want to because I love the taste of a well-prepared fish, but I'm certainly going to choose fish that will help ensure that fish-lovers who are eating well after I've died will have plenty of good fish to choose, too.

        (I am not afraid to quiz a restaurant's staff on the source of fish or the method by which it was caught. Seattle-area restaurants are pretty used to this but not all areas are; be prepared to send a question back to the chef or ask a manager before you go.)

        Living kidney donor needed; type B, O, or incompatible (with paired donation). Drop me a note (see profile).

        by Kitsap River on Fri Mar 05, 2010 at 04:12:25 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

    •  Yeah, I love tuna steak and I love swordfish. And (7+ / 0-)

      now I don't eat either one. I eat sardines sometimes. Whoopee.

      But both the species I love to eat are magnificent creatures and deserve to survive -- not to mention that we as humans need them to rebound so we have that source of protein as we approach peak human population, currently estimated for about 40 years from now. We can't afford to keep being so damned shortsighted.

  •  I used to eat a lot of fish but don't now. (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    RunawayRose, wader, trashablanca, DWG

    Between sustainability and health issues, the list is getting shorter all the time.

    866-338-1015 toll-free to Congress in D.C. USE it! You can tell how big a person is by what it takes to discourage them.

    by cany on Thu Mar 04, 2010 at 06:58:26 PM PST

  •  It was good to see your discussion of what (6+ / 0-)

    the Japanese are thinking -- ie that nothing is wrong. Yikes. I had assumed that they had a defiant attitude, a kind of "We can eat tuna and whale if we want, 'cause we always have" thing. I've puzzled over it at times -- the Japanese willingness to destroy what they clearly love.  But if most people there really don't understand how close these species are to the killing point, then it's a different problem, and one that ought to be solveable. Ought to be; I don't know if it is.

    I don't know how people from the outside can aid in educating the Japanese public. Probably there's some effective ways through the internet. Maybe we should all be signing up for Japanese internet pen-pals who want to practice their English.  THen we chat about whatever they want to and also we tell them about the bluefin tuna and the whales, and how Japanese recalcitance is undermining many people's positive attitudes toward their otherwise admirable country.

    A secret conspiracy of green pen-pals to save the fish!

    Or maybe someone has a better idea. . .

  •  Wow, I knew (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    RunawayRose, DWG, crose, beach babe in fl

    the Japanese were in denial, but still, it's mind boggling.  And they are such a huge part of the issue when it comes to overfishing, they can't be taken out of the equation!

    And now with whaling, etc.

    I'm so frustrated.

    Thanks for the diary though.  I wrote about how they would pretty much ignore any ban on blue fin tuna harvest at all.

  •  Been talking about this (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    RunawayRose, DWG, beach babe in fl

    for what, 15 years now? Carl Safina's Song for the Blue Ocean could have been written yesterday. ICCAT is called on the conservation side the International Conspiracy to Catch All Tuna, for its egregiously weak quotas (which are in the event disregarded anyway). Good for Tom Strickland and this Administration.

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