Nationalism and politics conspire to keep Critically Endangered species a lucrative international food commodity

By Falco Mueller-Fischler

Tsukiji Fish Market, Tokyo, 2007. Photo: Patrick McMurray.

On Thursday March 18th, the 175-member general assembly of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) voted to reject an Appendix I filing, a total trade ban, on Atlantic Bluefin Tuna. The last attempt to seek CITES protection for Atlantic Bluefin Tuna had been proposed by Sweden at the 1992 triennial meeting in Kyoto, Japan.

Atlantic Bluefin Tuna have been fished from the Mediterranean for at least 2,600 years but the kind of gastronomic fervour tuna meat feeds today is very much a contemporary phenomenon. In Japan, now the biggest importer of tuna in the world, the fish was long considered workers’ food. In the United-States, Tuna was employed solely for pet food until the commercial fishery took off. The advent of longline and purse seine fishing and invention of new freezing equipment around the mid-twentieth century allowed the development of international markets for fresh and canned tuna. In the 1970s, fishing efforts shifted from small schooling tuna to giant specimens caught to feed growing Japanese demand for the sushi and sashimi staple. Bluefin tuna is particularly prized in Japan as the specialty “hon-maguro”.

By 1999, 80 percent of stocks had collapsed, and last year, scientific estimates put the entire species at less than 15 percent of its level before commercial fishing began. Faced with public and political pressure, the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tuna (ICCAT) moved in November 2009 to set the annual bluefin quota from 22,000 to 13,500 tonnes a year, but recent independent inquiries have found that actual catches are closer to 60,000 tonnes.

Leading up to Thursday, Japan was aggressively moving to collect votes and publicly advertise its opposition. In the end, 20 delegations voted for the ban faced with 68 who opposed it and 30 who abstained. Among the 20 were E.U. countries, whose Mediterranean members fish about 75% of the annual catch, and the United-States. Both had their own last-minute domestic crises in rallying support. South Korea, China, Peru, Australia, Canada, and Arab League nations were all vocal advocates against the ban. Most were countering that ICCAT should be left responsible for control of the catches and that a trade ban would represent a lack of trust in regional fisheries to self-regulate themselves.

Most of the decline in stock has happened under ICCAT’s watch since 1970, with a very sizable portion of the drop having taken place in the last decade. ICCAT has not updated its website since February 24th, and in its own words, only “develops scientific-based management advice, provides a mechanism for Contracting Parties to agree on management measures, and produces relevant publications”. CITES own Secretary-General came out saying that the Bluefin tuna ban proposal was “a reflection of ICCAT’s failures”.

Wednesday evening, Japan’s ambassador hosted a tuna feast in Doha where the 15th CITES meeting is taking place. It is hard to ignore the rhetoric coming out of Japan painting the species as a mere commodity. Even the former director of the CITES secretariat, Yoshio Kaneko, came out saying that “It would be very difficult to totally wipe out a species living in the sea”. Hasanori Miyahara, Chief Counselor of the Fisheries Agency of Japan came out saying that “If necessary, let’s stop fishing using ICCAT measures. Then everyone must give up the fishing. But here, it is very unfair”, speaking about CITES. After Thursday’s vote, he came out telling The Associated Press “I feel more responsibility to work for the recovery of the species […], so it’s kind of a heavy decision for Japan, too.” Such ambiguously moral wording runs at odds with his systematic political efforts.

The same tactics of denial were evidenced by the first of two votes aiming to protect endangered shark species with sustainable use policies under Appendix II on Tuesday. Russia, China and Japan succeeded in blocking the filing, arguing that shark populations are not suffering, that current measures are more than adequate and that there was no scientific evidence that the sharks’ survival is threatened. According to marine advocacy group Oceana, as many as 73 million sharks are killed each year, primarily for their fins, the main ingredient in China’s famed broth of affluence, shark fin soup.

If Atlantic Bluefin Tuna had made it to Appendix I, it would have only been the first time that a commercially fished species made it to protection status under CITES. The difficulty of consumption restraint is an important consideration here. This vote was not about halting the sale of a rare bird traded as a pet, it was basically a matter of stopping to eat something! Japan and China’s responses to any attempt to regulate their catches or sea-born food through international legislation take on the dimension of a rebuke to a cultural attack. But Atlantic Bluefin Tuna is far from being an essential food commodity, the high prices Japan is willing to pay for the fish are the strongest proof of this (a single tuna can sell for upwards of $100,000 at auction), and conversely make it practically impossible to stop its fishing. After living near Madrid for a year, I can attest to the fact that Spaniards are voracious tuna eaters and are doing their fair share of unsustainable fishing of numerous stocks to feed their domestic market, but most of it is within their own waters, immediate oceans at worse. Japan’s pull calls for unscrupulous fishing nations such as Spain to catch the giant Bluefin for export from halfway around the world, just as they are about to come lay their eggs in the Mediterranean, as part of an aggressively extensive and growing international marine sourcing network. Today, 80 percent of the annual Bluefin catch goes to Japan.

How can a highbrow delicacy be termed as culturally essential? Extrapolating, we could say that these science-based arguments attack not the gastronomy, but the autonomy of pursuing the cultural idea that the sea is there to provide for humans. The concept of “international waters” can be interpreted as a reflection of a similar mentality, but are we not to believe that “international waters” were declared as such to highlight our collective responsibility to find agreement in how we manage the resource?

The global decimation tuna, of practically all of its species, exemplifies the larger problem of counting a wild species as part of a high-value, mass-market food supply. With no ownership of the resource until its capture, there is no room for responsible stewardship to develop. We rapidly fall into the trap of seeing fish as just there, like the empathetic Maine Congresswoman Chellie Pingree who came out opposing the Obama Administration’s decision to support the CITES ban saying that “the ability to catch and sell a tuna makes the difference for coastal Maine families, this is the worst possible time to place this unreasonable burden on them.” Maine fishermen cannot be dependent upon a $100,000 fish, they will give up everything else to pursue it. Continued subsidization of fisheries is a governmental encouragement for the population to depend upon an unsustainable resource. The time has come to repatriate what is considered an essential food commodity.

As the Monaco Delegation announced upon sponsoring the CITES ban in November, “with bluefin tuna, it’s not a question of 10 or 20 years but five or six years or less to see the stock collapse.” The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that over half of all fish stocks are in a critical state. Let us not forget that Atlantic Bluefin Tuna has received international attention because of where it is caught and that tuna species the world over are also being hunted to endangerment.

The CITES rejection of the restriction proposal is a major setback for the species and for fish conservation efforts around the world. The fact that science is still up for question in matters of non-essential wild-caught commodities is a testament to the flawed legislations by which these industries are bound today. We must continue to question where our food comes from and how it was brought to us, even when this means going against cultural status quo.

Falco Mueller-Fischler is an active member of Toronto’s gastronomic community and a passionate advocate for biological consciousness in all of our food and material decisions. He sees himself continuing his studies in Human Geography investigating issues of rural exodus and geographical identity, and how these relate to natural resource management. A resident of of the city for the last eight years, he originally hails from the town of Almonte in the Ottawa Valley. Falco currently works for an international company that sources niche agricultural products.