Snow leopards, pandas, and chimpanzees, oh my! But bluefin tuna? Could a fish frequently served at local restaurants deserve the endangered species list? That question is to be decided at an upcoming conference of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). CITES members are meeting in Doha, Qatar from March 13-25 to vote on a proposal by Monaco to list bluefin tuna on Appendix I to the Convention, the result of which listing would be a complete ban on international trade of the fish. Conservation groups such as the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) say this is a last ditch effort to prevent extinction of the species, while fishing industry groups argue that a ban would wipeout the livelihoods of fisherman in the U.S. and Europe. Thousands of tons of bluefin are shipped each year to buyers in Japan and elsewhere.
The bluefin population in the western Atlantic and Mediterranean has been devastated by relatively unchecked commercial fishing. The International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT), chief overseer of the species, confirms that stocks have declined precipitously in the last forty years due to more effective fishing methods, such as purse seining and longlining, and an increased demand by consumers.
Like sushi? So does everyone else, which is the main reason for its rise in popularity not only in Japan but worldwide. Bluefin tuna are coveted by sushi aficionados for their fatty flesh, especially the tender meat in their bellies called toro in Japanese. As a result, Japanese fish-buyers pay a premium to U.S. and European fisherman for quality fish. At a Tokyo auction in early January at one of the largest wholesale fish markets, a single bluefin tuna for $177,000 making headlines around the world.
Although typically considered food, bluefin rank among the most impressive marine animals. Capable of weighing more than 1,400 lbs. and measuring over ten feet in length, they swim at speeds in excess of 30 m.p.h. and prefer waters as deep as 3,000 feet. Their speed enables them to pursue fast moving prey such as squid, herring, mackerel and sardines. Large bluefin are referred to as “giant” tuna and they are by far the largest of the Thunnus genus, dwarfing the other species of tuna by hundreds of pounds. Yellowfin tuna max out at less than 400 lbs.; albacore tuna (also known as “chicken of the sea” for their distinctive white flesh) weigh less than 90 lbs. Their unique size and capacity for storing fat has increased the demand for their flesh.
Basic economics dictates that demand (and price) goes up as supply goes down. Basic psychology tells us that sellers who see an opportunity for higher prices will extinguish the well every time. Which is where regulatory bodies tend to become helpful. Organizations such as ICCAT and CITES are charged with ensuring tuna fisherman do not deplete a species beyond recovery while, at the same time, ensuring the continued ability of those fisherman to earn their livelihoods by preserving sustainable stocks.
ICCAT drastically lowered the annual catch quota for Atlantic bluefin, from 22,000 tons in November, 2009 to 13,500 tons this year. But those pushing for a ban by CITES do not think ICCAT went far enough. In fact, the stricter quota did not meet ICCAT’s own recommendations (based on its population studies) for saving the Atlantic bluefin. The recent U.S. support of the ban is a direct result of ICCAT’s failure to enact strict enough quotas. Supporters agree that the only way to preserve the species, and make viable future commercial fishing for bluefin, is an outright ban on international trade. It is difficult to disagree. Since the late 1960s, ICCAT has watched as bluefin stocks have declined 72% in the eastern Atlantic and Mediterranean and 82% in the western Atlantic.
However, there are those who disagree. Chief among them is Japan, the principal importer of bluefin, who considers an Appendix I listing too “inflexible” since listed species are rarely removed or downgraded. Japan believes the ICCAT quota system is a better method of managing stocks. Even the EU is not in complete agreement with Monaco’s proposal. France wants to delay a ban for 18 months to allow for further scientific studies of bluefin population levels. Spain, Greece, and Malta vehemently oppose the ban, which they see as a death blow to a substantial component of their fishing industries.
In order for Monaco’s proposal to be approved, two-thirds of the 175 members of CITES must vote for it. If passed, Japan and other opposed members may “take a reservation” to the ban and refuse to cease trading bluefin. However, it appears that the consciousness of consumers has been awakened by the recent public debates about the viability of the species. Like swordfish and other stocks depleted by overfishing due to consumer demand, chefs and restaurant patrons themselves have begun to boycott the serving of bluefin. In fact, as of January 1st, 500 chefs in France and the U.S. agreed to stop serving bluefin in their restaurants. Your chances of seeing that endangered species on your next menu may be slimmer than you think.
Image courtesy of Treehugger.com.