Not-So-Hot Tuna

Heather Horn at The Atlantic has the round-up

Paul Greenberg at The New York Times Magazine:

On the morning of June 4, in the international waters south of Malta, the Greenpeace vessels Rainbow Warrior and Arctic Sunrise deployed eight inflatable Zodiacs and skiffs into the azure surface of the Mediterranean. Protesters aboard donned helmets and took up DayGlo flags and plywood shields. With the organization’s observation helicopter hovering above, the pilots of the tiny boats hit their throttles, hurtling the fleet forward to stop what they viewed as an egregious environmental crime. It was a high-octane updating of a familiar tableau, one that anyone who has followed Greenpeace’s Save the Whales adventures of the last 35 years would have recognized. But in the waters off Malta there was not a whale to be seen.

What was in the water that day was a congregation of Atlantic bluefin tuna, a fish that when prepared as sushi is one of the most valuable forms of seafood in the world. It’s also a fish that regularly journeys between America and Europe and whose two populations, or “stocks,” have both been catastrophically overexploited. The BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, one of only two known Atlantic bluefin spawning grounds, has only intensified the crisis. By some estimates, there may be only 9,000 of the most ecologically vital megabreeders left in the fish’s North American stock, enough for the entire population of New York to have a final bite (or two) of high-grade otoro sushi. The Mediterranean stock of bluefin, historically a larger population than the North American one, has declined drastically as well. Indeed, most Mediterranean bluefin fishing consists of netting or “seining” young wild fish for “outgrowing” on tuna “ranches.” Which was why the Greenpeace craft had just deployed off Malta: a French fishing boat was about to legally catch an entire school of tuna, many of them undoubtedly juveniles.

Brian Merchant at Treehugger:

Sea Shepherd’s tactics may turn some heads, and draw the ire of many, but the activist group is proving itself incredibly effective. First, reports have surfaced that Sea Shepherd may have slashed Japan’s illegal whaling catch by half. Now, in yet another daring exploit, the group’s divers have saved 800 of the most endangered fish on earth, the Bluefin Tuna, from poachers — using rotten butter to aid the rescue operation.

[…]

Bluefin tuna are one of the most valuable fish in the world — and as a result, they’re fast becoming extinct. High demand for the fish in Japan, where it’s used in high-end sashimi, is one of the primary reasons that it has been devastatingly overfished in recent years. And yes, you may have read about one of the Bluefin tuna’s few breeding grounds — in the Gulf of Mexico — being direly threatened by the BP spill. Scientists say that unless fishing is halted, or at least slowed dramatically, the bluefin will be entirely extinct in a matter of years. Unfortunately Japan persuaded China to block a trade ban proposed by the UN, so it remains legal to catch, albeit in limited numbers.

But those limited numbers are often ‘overlooked’ by poachers who recognize the bluefin’s value, and such regulations are frequently violated. Which is why activist groups like Sea Shepherd are poised to become heroes to many, and a scourge to fisherman — as they’ve already proved themselves to be both whaling arena.

Francesca Vella at The Malta Independent:

A Maltese fisherman was injured yesterday, in yet another clash with anti-bluefin tuna fishing activists in the Mediterranean.

The incident involved Sea Shepherd Conservation Society and Maltese aquaculture operators who were towing bluefin tuna cages, in what the Resources and Rural Affairs Ministry said was a legal operation.

The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, on the other hand, said its ship, Steve Irwin, had identified two purse seiners committing illegal activities.

The incident took place in Libyan territorial waters, allegedly about 35 nautical miles off the coast of Tripoli, and a Libyan patrol boat was sent to the area.

Although information on what actually happened was sketchy yesterday evening, a Maltese fisherman seems to have suffered a ripped arm after one of the activists threw a grapnel at the tuna pen.

Bluefin tuna fishing has long been a matter of controversy due to badly depleted stocks. Only recently, member governments of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) turned down a proposal to ban international commercial trade in Atlantic bluefin tuna – a measure that could have helped avert the rapid extinction of the species.

Both Greenpeace and the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society estimate that 80 per cent of bluefin tuna have already been fished out. The organisations have been calling for an end to bluefin tuna fishing to allow populations to recover to healthy levels.

A few days ago, the European Commission decided to close the bluefin tuna fishery to purse seiners in the Mediterranean and Eastern Atlantic, due to the exhaustion of the allocated quotas.

The European Commission said: “The closure of the purse seine fishery is necessary to protect the fragile stock of bluefin tuna and to ensure its recovery as envisaged by the recovery plan of the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT). The Commission has declared a zero tolerance approach towards overfishing and will take all necessary measures to ensure full compliance across the board.

Bruce Einhorn and Stuart Biggs at Businessweek:

Tokyo’s Tsukiji fish market is a long way from the oil-drenched waters of the Gulf of Mexico. Starting at 4 a.m. every day, agents from Japanese trading companies bid for bluefin tuna and other fish from around the world that lie side by side on the floor of a cavernous warehouse. Bluefin is a mainstay of any sushi restaurant in Tokyo, and the giant fish—sometimes weighing more than 500 pounds—is the king of Tsukiji. BP’s spill is billowing near one of two spawning grounds for the Atlantic variety of bluefin (the other is in the Mediterranean). For now, fishmongers in Tsukiji say they’re not worried about the effect the BP (BP) disaster will have on the bluefin population. “If there’s an impact,” says one trader for local wholesaler Umino who won’t give his full name, “we won’t see it for a few years.”

Go to the U.S., though, and you’ll find plenty of scientists, state officials, and fishermen wondering already about the disaster’s impact on the bluefin. Japan last year consumed about 80 percent of the world’s bluefin catch, or 52,000 tons, according to the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry & Fisheries. A large chunk of that comes from the Atlantic. The chemicals BP is using to contain the spill could damage the bluefin larvae produced by adults that spawned in the Gulf. “The oil plus the dispersants are likely to have a huge effect,” says Bill Fox, managing director for fisheries at the World Wildlife Fund. For the Atlantic bluefin, “this is a real blow.”

Scientists from several institutions, including the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration, are trying to figure how big the blow really is. Bluefin tuna live for up to 40 years, and in that time many repeat the same cycle endlessly: spawn in the Gulf or the Mediterranean, then head to the teeming waters of the North Atlantic to feed. Spawning in the Gulf takes place from March to June, and the spawning ground overlaps with the oil spill. Bluefin need clean ocean water to spawn—adults spawn at the surface, so they may have gotten coated with oil while spawning this year.

No one is sure exactly what happened this year when the Gulf spawning season started. If there is an effect, “we’ll see [it] in about three to four years,” says Greg Stunz, marine scientist at the Harte Research Institute for the Gulf of Mexico in Texas. That’s when the bluefin tuna born this year reach adult size. A weakened, underpopulated generation of bluefin would show something serious happened. Some fishermen, though, say enough of the spawning occurred before the Apr. 20 spill to minimize the damage.

The Economist:

Things might be better for the bluefin if it were possible to breed them in captivity, as well as raising them there. Though they call it farming, what Mr Azzopardi and his competitors are engaged in is actually more like ranching. Real husbandry nurtures animals from birth to death rather than just fattening up wild-caught individuals. That could bring economic benefits. It would also, some people think, take the pressure off wild stocks.

Clean Seas Tuna, an Australian company, has been working on the idea of farming bluefins for more than a decade, and seems to have made some progress. Last year it posted a video on YouTube showing baby southern bluefin that it had bred.

But there is more to farming than just breeding. A recurring problem for tuna-rearers is “spooking and walling”. Alex Mühlhölzl of Oceanic Tuna, a company based in Scotland which also claims to be able to breed bluefin, explains that the fish are easily frightened. In the sea, there are no walls and a frightened fish’s best escape is to swim off very fast indeed in whatever direction takes its fancy. In tanks and cages, however, this is a bad—often fatal—strategy.

Another argument against both ranching and farming is that the tuna still have to be fed, and that means with other fish caught from the wild. But this could change. In the case of salmon, a carnivorous species that is now farmed routinely, it has proved possible to mix veggies and other sources of protein into the fish’s chow. The fish content of salmon food has been reduced from 70% in 1972 to around 20% today, says Kjell Bjordal, the head of Ewos, a Norwegian fish-food company.

Feeding has also become more efficient. Mr Bjordal says that for salmon the conversion rate—the number of kilos of food needed for a gain of one kilo of body weight—is now almost 1.1:1. For tuna it can be as bad as 6:1. But that is where salmon farming was 35 years ago, so there is plenty of scope for improvement.

If bluefin could be farmed routinely, it might bring the price down, relieving pressure on wild stocks, as happened with salmon. That would be a boon to the hungry consumer. It would also be a boon to the species itself, though—again, as with salmon—the wild animal might become a premium product in its own right.

Robert Prather:

No doubt a mixed approach will be necessary that will contain market mechanisms and some instances of command and control. As for market mechanisms, I would prefer a system of tradable fishing quotas. In essence, there would be a permit that entitled existing fishermen to catch a certain amount of fish each year in an area and the permit would be tradable, creating a transferrable property right that would have value, much like the medallion system for taxi cabs in New York City (though that’s not a commons problem).A fisherman who wanted to exit fishing at some point, either for retirement or to start a new career, could sell his permit to another fisherman. The benefits to this seem obvious to me, such as creating a method for fishermen to exit or enter the profession based on how much it’s worth to them while also giving them a sort of “ownership” of the ocean. Alone though, it won’t be enough.

The article goes into some detail discussing the existing treaty arrangements and the potential solutions to the larger problem of overfishing. For once, this is an area where the UN’s involvement is essential and welcome, to me. We’re dealing with a resource that’s in international waters and no other organization has jurisdiction. Of course, treaties will be needed and command and control policies, such as a ban on fishing in large parts of the ocean, might be necessary to allow fisheries to recover.

There’s another article that’s quite interesting on genetically engineered salmon that I wanted to address, but this post is quite long already. I’ll leave you with a comment from the article’s comment section (#236) that’s nothing more than a leftist laundry list of Luddite laments:

Scientists are killing us with their good intentions. Chernobyl, Deep water drilling, Bhopal, Roundup Ready soybeans, genetically modified fast growing chickens, cows and now fish. This planet is going to hell in a handbasket. The problem is overpopulation, greed and ignorance compounded by “scientific breakthroughs” that allow overpopulation, greed and ignorance to continue uninterupted.

Now most of these aren’t even necessarily bad, but that’s a discussion for another time. Between the far left’s anti-science positions as described above and the far right’s creationism and such, it’s a wonder there was ever a Renaissance or Enlightenment.

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Filed under Animal Rights, Energy, Environment, Food, Foreign Affairs

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