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Jul. 10 2009 - 2:47 pm | 9,548 views | 1 recommendation | 8 comments

Is the Mafia stealing your tuna?


Photo by Robert Gilhooly - japanphotojournalist.com

At the 2006 meeting of the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT), a surprise awaited a WWF delegate at her table: white lilies and chrysanthemums. In any other context, the flowers would be just flowers. But these were extenuating circumstances. ICCAT’s 42 member nations were there to hash out the bluefin tuna quota. Scientists said that Mediterranean bluefin stocks were severely overfished and close to collapse. Environmentalists were agitating for immediate fishery closure. Billions of dollars were at stake. And now rumors were circulating that the mafia had gotten into the tuna business. In mafia symbolic parlance, white lilies — funeral flowers — were a death threat.

Melodrama aside, the incident highlights a terrible truism in conservation: the scarcer some living resources become, the greater their value on the market. And the more a living resource is worth— in bluefin’s case as sushi or sashimi —the harder it is to halt, or limit, its extraction.

Relentless fishing, both legal and illegal, is fast driving Mediterranean blufin tuna out of existence. They are, scientists have repeatedly warned, on the brink of commercial extinction.

The numbers are mortifying. For years, the quantity of bluefin landed yearly has hovered between double and triple the legally allowable catch. It’s bad enough that ICCAT seems unable or unwilling to rein in illegal fishing; the commission also appears unwilling to pay its own scientists any mind.

Two years ago, when ICCAT’s own scientists recommended a 15,000-ton quota, the commission set it at 29,500, nearly double. Actual catches reached 61,000 tons. That’s quadruple what fishery scientists had initially recommended. This year, the quota is set at 22,500 tons, still high, but an improvement. (Scientists had recommended 7500 tons to avoid stock collapse.)

At this point, ICCAT is well aware of its failures. Last year, an independent review, conducted at its own behest, labeled the organization an “international disgrace” and “a travesty in fisheries management.”

But still, you have to wonder: How does this happen? You can blame the usual political jockeying — lobbying by fishermen worried about losing jobs, and more lobbying by boat owners eager to recoup their considerable investments.

But basically, the driving force is an irresistibly attractive market price.

The majority — 80 to 90 percent — of the world’s bluefin is consumed in Japan. In Tokyo, a single 444 lb fish once fetched $175,000 at auction. Bluefin has become one of the most valuable foods in the world. And it’s making people rich. In the Mediterranean, once humble fishermen now own seaside villas. Port Lincoln, Australia, where tuna ranching was pioneered, now has the greatest concentration of millionaires in the southern hemisphere. (Tuna ranching means catching tuna and fattening them up in sea pens, thereby boosting profits.)

Rebecca Lent with the National Marine Fisheries Service points out that this phenomenon is hardly restricted to fish. You name it — drugs, prostitution, ivory, blood diamonds — if demand is high enough, someone will clamor to supply. Potential fines and other punitive measures become a small, and completely bearable, cost of doing business.

History is littered with the carcasses of critters that have disappeared because they were worth too much on the market. The once numerous American bison was nearly extinct by the end of the 1800s. The impetus: a new fad for buffalo-skin coats. In the same century, millions of beaver and otter disappeared to make hats and fur trim on coats and capes. In many places, both species are just now making a comeback. And now, as horns from endangered rhinos are again finding their way onto the black market — in Asia they’re valued for purported medicinal properties  —game wardens have taken to sawing them off in advance. No horn on the rhino, no incentive to poach. It’s a shame a similar prophylactic can’t be applied to bluefin. Remove the sashimi from the fish in advance, and it might have a chance.

So does what happens in the east stay in the east? Scientists once thought that the eastern and western bluefin populations didn’t mix much. To a large degree, that’s still how ICCAT manages bluefin — two stocks separated by an imaginary line bisecting the Atlantic. But fish tagging studies in the 1990s upended the notion that this scheme had a basis in reality. Scientists found that up to 30 percent of fish tagged on one side migrated to the other.

Which is at least partially why, in 2007, the US Senate called for a moratorium on fishing bluefin. They may have been more worried about their constituents than the fish itself. US fishermen have been unable to catch their assigned bluefin quota for years. Last year, they managed to catch just one-quarter of their assigned 1,391-ton total allowable catch. That was an improvement over the mere 10 percent they landed two years earlier.

In other words —yes —the mafia may be stealing tuna from Maine.

Note: In my original post, I said rhino horns were considered an aphrodisiac. As it turns out, that may be “a media myth.” Save the Rhino’s Cathy Dean says:

In [Asian] cultures, horn is believed to reduce fever, rather than to be an aphrodisiac, which is a media myth.  In some Middle Eastern countries, even though it is illegal, rhino horn is used for ornamental dagger handles – a status symbol procured at a terrible cost.

Posted by: Moises Velasquez-Manoff


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