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
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.
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.