A United Nations-backed wildlife conference in Qatar canned a proposal aimed at protecting the world's dwindling stock of Atlantic bluefin tuna Thursday, just hours after rejecting a similar trade ban on polar bear parts.
The bluefin debate has been going on since the early 1980s, Bloomberg noted. The fish has been a prize catch since the early 1900s for its use in sushi and other dishes. Recently, a number of scientists have come forward with data indicating that the fish faces a biological watershed and may even go extinct in the wild.
Delegates entered the Qatar conference with high hopes they could agree on a temporary ban on bluefin fishing, a last-ditch effort to save the species before an imminent collapse of stocks. But a contingent of countries led by Japan (the world's leader in bluefin consumption) were intent on scuttling the idea from the get-go, arguing that a ban on bluefin fishing would be "unworkable and unfair."
To see why the bluefin trade-ban proposal failed, take a look at the key ingredients involved in the ban talks:
Start With 2 International Wildlife Bodies
The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) is the name of the U.N. conference and also one of the world's largest voluntary wildlife conservation pacts, including 175 parties. Agreements reached are binding but do not supercede international law. The pact categorizes species into three groups: those that are protected in at least one country, those that are "not necessarily threatened with extinction, but in which trade must be controlled" to ensure their survival, and finally those that are "threatened with extinction," which are only permitted to be traded under "exceptional circumstances." In order to impose the ban, members would have had to agree to reclassify the bluefin in the third category.
The International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) describes itself as an "inter-governmental fishery organization responsible for the conservation of tunas and tuna-like species in the Atlantic Ocean and its adjacent seas." It includes 58 nations.The organization has long been criticized for failing to act on the reports prepared by its own scientific researches: "ICCAT members routinely ignore the advice of their own scientific committee and set catch quotas at double recommended levels. National fleets then regularly exceed even these quotas," Scientific American magazine said.
Add 1 Prized Fish
The Atlantic bluefin tuna (scientific name Thunnus thynnus) is a torpedo-shaped, metallic blue and white, warm-blooded fish that measures an average 6.5 feet long and 550 pounds, according to National Geographic. The bluefin lives in the North Atlantic, can travel at a top speed of 43 mph and has been recorded migrating anywhere from the spawning grounds in the Mediterranean all the way to the Gulf of Mexico.
As far as current numbers go, the ICCAT and other groups agree that the portrait is particularly grim. One report from ICCAT described the situation in stark detail:
Still, as the numbers of fish go down, the price goes up: A year ago, The Washington Post reported that "a single bluefin can sell for $100,000 or more." More recently, The Japan Times highlighted several indications of how valuable the bluefin has become in recent years, including this illustrative example: "Two months ago, the owners of two sushi restaurants in Japan and one in Hong Kong banded together to pay $175,000 for a 233-kg bluefin tuna at Tokyo's Tsukiji fish market."Continued fishing at current fishing mortalities is expected to drive the spawning stock biomass in the East to very low levels; i.e. to about 18 percent of the 1970 level and 6 percent of the unfished level. This combination of high fishing mortality, low spawning stock biomass and massive fishing overcapacity results in a high risk of fisheries and stock collapse. A study by Mackenzie et al. (2009) concludes that even if a near-complete ban on all bluefin tuna fishing in the Northeast Atlantic and Mediterranean were implemented and enforced from 2008 to 2022, the population would still probably fall to record lows in the next few years.
1 Proposed Ban
Last year, the tiny Mediterranean country of Monaco (south of France) spearheaded the current effort to implement a temporary global ban on the international trade of bluefin. Collaborating with CITES, Monaco submitted a proposal that calls for "banning fishing of bluefin in the eastern Atlantic and Mediterranean until each fishing nation crafts measures towards the recovery of bluefin tun stocks, and establishes a system to monitor poaching," according to Japan Today. Monaco's proposal would make an exemption for the domestic fishing and sale of bluefin.
A few major players emerged from the multitude of representatives at the conference.
Initially, the ban was greeted by hesitation from many nations. Nature reported that the European Union initially declined to vote on Monaco's proposal, despite the fact that several countries with large fishing industries supported it. But by early 2010, more European nations were ready to support it, as detailed in The New York Times.
The U.S. eventually joined those calling for a ban, announcing via the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration that it supported Monaco in calling for "the strongest possible management for the conservation of Atlantic bluefin tuna, a fish which is in serious trouble."
Japan, which numerous sources note consumes the vast majority of the worldwide bluefin tuna catch annually, has long resisted the idea of curtailing access to bluefin stock. Japanese officials argue that bluefin are not sufficiently endangered and that a ban would give an unfair economic leverage to Europe, where most of the bluefin fishermen are based.
In the latest round of talks, Japanese delegates secured support from China and other Asian countries. The Associated Press reported that Australia, Peru and several other nations were also only willing to back a weaker proposal.
A Smattering of Famous Foodies
The bluefin is also known as "blue ahi tuna," according to Steaks Guide, and is prized by chefs for its "remarkable" flavor; it is "considered to be the cream of the crop when it comes to tuna." The Web site advises grilling it, and observes that it is popular in Japanese and Caribbean dishes. Meanwhile, the ICCAT says it is "traditionally consumed fresh in Mediterranean countries, and it is also one of the most appreciated species for the sashimi market in Japan and in the oeverall global market."
The French news agency AFP pointed out that several high-class U.S. restaurants are famous for serving it:
However, as Sasha Issenberg, author of "The Sushi Economy," told Slate magazine in an interview: "By definition, these tuna have to be laundered, sometimes on multiple continents, and it's hard to envision any sort of reputable system for many species of fish that would give a guarantee to a diner or chef that they actually know where their fish came from and how they were caught."As chefs at the upscale New York sushi restaurant Megu slide huge knives through their latest bluefin tuna, the possible extinction of the species is far from their minds. ... The Nobu chain, co-owned by actor Robert De Niro, continues to serve the endangered fish, despite being targeted by environmentally-minded celebrities such as Elle Macpherson and Sting.
Andrew Zimmern, host of the hit Travel Channel TV show "Bizarre Foods," noted a potential unintended consequence of the ban on his Minneapolis St. Paul Magazine blog:
Here's the rub. Ban the fishing of Atlantic Bluefin and what does that do to the Pacific fish stocks? I am not saying the Atlantic ban shouldn't happen, but if it does, and if it's listed on Appendix 1, requiring the strictest limits/penalties, the whole "global sushi economy" would go topsy turvy and the prices for Pacific tuna would quintuple (or worse) ... seriously.
A Liberal Helping of Activist Groups
Greenpeace attempted to leverage the major media sources in Qatar to promote support for the ban. On the Greenpeace Campaign Blog, a campaigner argued: "I put forward how silly the Japanese position is -- if they want to keep eating the stuff, why on earth wouldn't they support a temporary trade ban to protect it for the long-term?"
In January, the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society announced that it was sending its two main vessels into the Mediterranean to disrupt commercial fishing of bluefin tuna.
Last year, following the ICCAT's vote in favor of lowering the total bluefin catch by 40 percent, to a total quota of 13,500 tons for 2010, a spokesperson for the Pew Environment Group told the London Times: "Only a zero catch limit could have maximised the chances that Atlantic bluefin tuna could recover to the point where the fishery could exist in the future."
And You May Have a Final Meal
The Times reported that conversations fear at current fishing rates, the fish would be extinct in the wild by 2011.