Chalk up another one for stupid human tricks. The Atlantic bluefin tuna has just been fast-tracked for extinction. During the recently concluded meeting of the United Nations Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) in Doha, the United States was among a bloc of nations supporting a commercial trade ban on the bluefin. The vote for the ban was not even close - 20 in favor of the ban, 68 opposed.
When the United States announced its support for the ban several weeks prior to the CITES meeting, environmentalists were cautiously optimistic that a ban would be passed, giving the bluefin population breathing room to recover to sustainable levels. Marine ecologist Carl Safina described the anticipation and disappointment associated with CITES decision:
I was hoping for good news today. I have a bottle of champagne on my desk. But with Japan undermining the democracy of the CITES convention, I was braced for what’s happened. My champagne will remain firmly corked. Success remains elusive. There are miles to go before we have something to celebrate. The situation will worsen.
Carl Safina describes overhearing the following conversation between fishing vessels pulling in large amounts of bluefin tuna in 1989.
"Somebody got on the radio and said, ‘Guys, maybe we should leave some for tomorrow.' Another guy came on and said, ‘Hey, they didn’t leave any buffalo for me.’" That offhand comment affected Safina profoundly: he realized that, through overfishing, entire species of fish could literally vanish. He began referring to global overfishing as "the last buffalo hunt."
The bluefin tuna are the buffalo of the sea. These massive creatures can reach 15 feet in length and weigh up to 1500 pounds, yet despite their size can swim faster than 60 miles an hour at depths approaching one mile. They migrate across the Atlantic from spawning grounds in the Gulf of Mexico to feed off the coasts of Europe and Africa. These brutes used to roam the oceans in schools that would rival buffalo herds on the plains.
The Atlantic bluefin tuna (Thunnus thynnus) is a fish that plays a key role in the ocean food chain. The bluefin tuna can live up to forty years, measure up to 4 metres long and weigh over 700 kilograms. As they have a warm-blooded metabolism, they are capable of stabilising their body temperature whenever they dive down to depths of over 900 metres into cold waters.
Then along came the seine fishing fleets of Japan and the United States during the early 1960s in a binge of harvesting that decimated the bluefin population. By 1969, the international community supported the creation of a commission to study the bluefin and set sustainable harvesting quotas. As noted in the next section, those quotas slowed the decline, but the population has been in free fall during the past decade. With Japan paying as much as $175,000 for a single large bluefin, quotas have been largely ignored and the biomass reaching commercial markets is more than double sanctioned harvest limits.
Here are a few points made in the proposal by Monaco to ban commercial trade. Prior to 1960, the spawning biomass of the Atlantic bluefin tuna was approximately 300,000 tons. By 1980, the spawning biomass had dropped to 200,000 tons, but managed to remain stable until 2000. Over the past decade, the spawning biomass dropped to 50,000 tons and continues to plummet. Without a ban, the current rate of decline will result in the spawning population reaching a few thousand tons by 2012 and bring an end to the bluefin tuna in the wild.
Since 2006, it has been a commonly acknowledged fact that in the Mediterranean the fishing
capacity of the fleets of seining vessels (over 250 boats), longliners and artisanal fisheries largely exceeds the production capacity of the resource.
The extremely lucrative sushi and sashimi market, which ignores quotas, encourages illegal fishing by scorning the recommendations and warnings of scientists.
All estimations show that the Atlantic bluefin tuna population is on the verge of collapse.
Stupid Human Trick: Vote against a ban and sign the death warrant for bluefin tuna in a matter of years. There is at least some small comfort in the United States behaving in a responsible manner and supporting the ban.
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If you remember the Dr. Seuss classic The Cat In The Hat, the fish demanded the cat "stop this right now." The quote is timely as is the cat reference. The international organization created in 1969 to manage sustainable fishing of the bluefin tuna is the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT). Conservationists like to refer to it as the International Conspiracy to Catch All Tunas. That snarky monicker describes the failure of the organization to head off a population collapse over the past decade. As noted by Susan Lieberman, director of international policy for the Pew Environment Group, in her statement over the failure to ban commercial trade of the bluefin:
“Today’s vote puts the fate of Atlantic bluefin tuna back in the hands of the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT), the very body that drove the species to the disastrous state it is now in."
ICCAT has gone from weakly effective from 1970 to 2000 to completely inept during the past decade. ICCAT has consistently set quotas higher than justified by their own scientists and have failed to act on their own evidence of unreported catch being sold in large quantities on the commercial market. Even with evidence of the collapse of the bluefin population, ICCAT maintained an annual catch limit at 32,000 tons until 2007. Now they propose reducing the annual harvest to 13,500 tons despite evidence the best case scenario for survival of the wild population is a limit of 8,000 tons. And those limits do not take into account the unreported catch which has been over 25,000 tons per year for the past decade. Since 1995, half of the bluefin coming to market has come from unreported sources which ICCAT proposes to deal with by having observers present on all sanctioned vessels. When a single fish can bring in over $100,000, there will be no shortage of incentives to bribe observers to look the other way.
Like the Cat in the Hat, ICCAT has been aided and abetted in the destruction of the bluefin by Thing 1 and Thing 2. Thing 1 is Japan, which consumes 80% of the bluefin tuna. Thing 2 is the fishing industry, which keeps Japan rolling in bluefin sushi and sashimi. These two Things have been the political force that has kept ICCAT from adopting the management recommendations of its own scientists.
The biggest threat is not from artisanal fishing methods. These methods (illustrated in the following National Geographic video) have been practiced for thousands of years in the Mediterranean. The yield is a few hundred tons for a season.
The biggest threat comes from massive purse seine ships. There are now 250 ships in service that can haul several thousand tons in a single run. Using helicopters as spotters, these ships net entire schools of bluefin along with anything swimming with them. Here is one example:
A commercial trade ban for the bluefin was proposed at CITES in 1992, but defeated with the promise of better management by ICCAT and compliance by the fishing industry. In those days, the bluefin was overfished but not on the brink of extinction in the wild. Failure means extinction this time around.
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The scientific evidence of bluefin's plight is overwhelming. The United States and European Union were in favor of a ban. Yet, Japan won the day in the CITES meeting in Doha. The Japanese won the right to eat the bluefish into extinction. They did it with economic coercion and lies. They even promised not to abide by a trade ban if it passed. Here are post-mortems from the CITES debacle in the media:
In theory, these two power blocs had a strong hand. No one could remember a better scientific case to support a temporary ban on trade in any species. Two scientific bodies, the scientific committee of the Atlantic tuna commission, the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) and a special panel of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation agreed that the bluefin stock qualified for a ban because it had declined to less than 15% of its historical levels.
Country after country — Canada, Indonesia, Tunisia, the United Arab Emirates, Venezuela, Chile and Senegal — said they wanted the Atlantic tuna commission, which has allowed the bluefin to get into its present plight, to carry on managing the fish. The conservationists had no riposte to the fears Japan had stirred up in poor countries that their economies would suffer from a trade ban.
The vote split partly along developed/developing nation lines. But make no mistake: It was largely the result of relentless lobbying by Japan, whose citizens consume four-fifths of the world’s bluefin tuna, thus providing a steady market for poorer countries with big fishing industries like Tunisia.
Under the proposed ban, Japan would have been allowed to consume only the fish caught in its own waters, which would have put a huge crimp in exports from Tunisia and other African nations that ply the Mediterranean and Eastern Atlantic.
I can understand the economic fears of poor countries like Tunisia. I cannot understand the lack of conscience by Japan. In a previous diary, I described surveys conducted in Japan which suggested that Japanese consumers are unaware of overfishing and a tend to only believe information coming from their government. I do not believe the ignorance, but the disinformation by the Japanese government is clear. Carl Safina has compiled some of the more memorable idiotic quotes from Japanese officials. My favorite:
Yuichiro Harada, a Tokyo-based fisheries lobbyist supports “responsible” bluefin tuna fishing, and said: “It’s quite unfair to treat tuna the same way as lions and tigers and elephants. Unlike those animals, tuna can bear hundreds of millions of eggs and is internationally recognized as a commercial food.”
I wonder if this so-called fish expert can tell you how many of the bluefin that hatch from those millions of eggs will reach reproductive maturity. I doubt it. The Japanese delegation to the CITES was filled with lobbyists like Harada to get enough votes to scuttle a trade ban. It is shame that we cannot eat lobbyists.
There is ever popular slippery-slope argument:
"Commercial whaling has already been restricted. If tuna trading is also banned, the next target could be bonito. It's a dangerous situation," Kushiro added, showing his intention to continue to oppose a move toward banning any trade in bluefin tuna.
And the "two wrongs make a right" argument like the finger pointing at China by this popular Japanese foodie in his blog:
Unrelated at may sound, nobody seems to have the guts to question China and her fishermen who kill more than a million (yes, you read well!) sharkes for the sole benefit of cutting off their fins (the rest of the fish is callously thrown back into the sea).
Perhaps the most disgraceful player in this kabuki drama is Mitsubishi. Here is another monument to corporate greed:
Mitsubishi, Japanese mega-conglomerate, was alleged to have started hoarding thousands of tons of bluefin tuna just as stocks of the fish plummet worldwide. This raises eyebrows and a wave of concern spread out globally. It is observed that if the fish goes commercially extinct, the company is hopeful that it can turn a hefty profit from its frozen bluefin cache. It is fact that bluefin is one of the world’s most endangered fish, and is expected to go commercially extinct by 2012 if drastic measures aren’t taken to stem overfishing.
Conservationists informed that legally commercial hauls are limited to 22,000 tons per year, but the actual catch is 60,000 tons, more than four times the maximum sustainable level. By its own estimates, Mitsubishi controls 35 to 40 percent of that stock. Commenting on that Mitsubishi admits that it deep-freezes some of its catch to smooth out short-term supply, some environmentalists believe the company is attempting to corner the bluefin market and hoard inventories as supply continues its downward spiral.
Even the whole sniveling schtick that "tuna is part of Japanese culture" is utter nonsense. Here is at least one Japanese media account with the courage to betray that lie.
As Ikenami wrote, the history of tuna consumption is young. In western Japan, where yellowtail is widely eaten, its history is even shorter. Modern refrigeration technology and transport made tuna available to the masses, but it only began appearing in supermarkets and at conveyor-belt sushi restaurants in the past decade or so.
Tuna is not a part of our traditional diet. Sure, it's delicious, but the tendency to blindly worship fatty tuna is a meaningless consequence of a fishing industry that has grown increasingly capitalistic and a food culture that has become more and more uniform. Prior to Japan's period of rapid economic growth, the Japanese ate whatever fish was available in nearby regional waters.
If you connect the dots here, the problem lies with the government of Japan and the powerful corporate interests it serves rather than the Japanese people. The government is using international anger over the failure to protect the bluefin to prop up popular support among the Japanese people. Accusing critics of Japanese policy of "Nihon tataki" (Japan bashing) is an old but effective trick.
The sad thing is that the bluefin is being fished to extinction to appease the palates of the wealthy. It is a triumph of luxury over necessity. And the irony is that the bluefin could easily be sustained if the catch was limited to the artisanal fishing operations in the Mediterranean who depend on the bluefin for food and income. These operations will pay the price for the disappearance of the bluefin. The villain in the fishing industry is the seine fishing fleet. Large purse seine vessels employ few but harvest up to 3000 tons in a single run. When the bluefin are gone, they will find other species to destroy. For those with a conscience, the bluefin being hunted to extinction is just another symptom of environmental mismanagement for short-term profit.
One final sobering note. The failure of CITES to protect the bluefin despite the overwhelming scientific evidence of an imminent population collapse raises doubt about the ability of the organization to protect any commercial species of fish. The Japanese government has certainly provided a blueprint for obstruction, especially since the CITES bylaws require a two-thirds majority to approve a trade ban for an endangered species.
The vote has raised doubts about whether CITES can apply to commercial marine species, says Gael de Rotalier, a member of the European Union delegation, which led one of the ban proposals. "This is a real setback for CITES," he says. "Bluefin tuna was an important test."