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Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Bluefin Blues
distributed 3/5/10 - ©2010

A Bizarro comic strip from last summer is taped to my office door. Titled "Find the Hidden History Lesson", it shows two fishermen standing on a dock, proudly posing beside their catch. The drawing on the left, dated 1959, shows a lean angler and a large fish. The one on the right, dated "Today", shows a large angler and a lean fish.

The cartoon puts into simple and humorous form a deeply disturbing fact: the big fish are gone from the world's oceans. But Bizarro didn't state the issue strongly enough. An analysis of sport fishing photos between 1956 to 2007, from the Key West area near Florida, found that the average fish size dropped from about 23 kilograms to only 2.3 kilograms and that their average length shrank from nearly 2 meters to 35 centimeters.

If the problem was just about a thrilling deep-sea catch for vacationing folk, I would not be too concerned. But the dramatic decline of important fish stocks is widespread. The Monterey Bay Aquarium reports that, despite our best efforts at conservation, "the global catch of wild fish leveled off over 20 years ago and 70 percent of the world's fisheries are being harvested at capacity or are in decline." From a strictly human perspective, that's a threat to an essential food supply, and it shows that a major industry has been operating in utterly unsustainable ways. From an ecological perspective, the loss of so many species at the top of the ocean food chain is an incredible disruption to marine habitats, with consequences that are hard to predict.

The current poster child for the marine crisis is the Bluefin Tuna. At a meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) later this month, representatives of most of the world's nations will consider an international ban on trading bluefin, and several other species.

There is no question in my mind whether such international action is warranted. Four decades of overfishing have driven the western north Atlantic population of bluefin tuna to just 3% of its 1960 abundance. The southern bluefin population is down to 8% of historic levels. That 92-97% decline is largely attributable to new "longline" fishing technologies that can plunder vast areas of the ocean, and to ever-expanding demand for this particular fish.

When overfishing has such a profound impact, when a previously abundant and healthy population is driven to the brink of extinction, strong protective action would seem to be both rational and morally imperative. But the CITES meeting probably will not come to an effective decision.

Many nations, including the United States, support the proposed ban on bluefin trading. But Japan has announced that it will not comply with the ban -- and Japan consumes 40% of the global bluefin catch. If Japan does not go along with the restrictions, it seems likely that overfishing will continue.

My (admittedly sketchy) consideration of Japan's stance on the tuna ban points to several factors that keep the fish in extreme danger of extinction.

  1. There is a matter of national culture and pride. Bluefin tuna is the gourmet choice for sushi and sashimi in Japan (just as it is in the Americas, Europe and China). More generally, tuna is an important part of the national diet. Japan takes in 80% of the overall Atlantic tuna catch, and that small country eats about a quarter of the global catch. Tuna is not just a food item -- it is deeply woven into Japan's identity.

  2. There is a strong economic component. The demand for these choice fish makes for a lucrative business. A few years ago, a single "exceptionally nice" bluefin tuna sold for over $173,000. More typically, bluefin can wholesale at around $30 a pound. The fishing and restaurant industries have a lot at stake. (Some adjustments in Japan's fishing quotas are being made to address the declining populations.)

  3. Japan's rejection of a tuna ban sounds very familiar, since the country has also defied international limits on whaling. A Japanese mindset may not take easily to conservation measures, or to outside control. University of New Hampshire economist T.E. Howard has written, "Modern and historical Japanese societies are and were quite comfortable with a nature defined, designed, and dominated by humans."

Culture, economics and philosophy help to explain why Japan might oppose restrictions on the tuna trade, even as tuna populations continue to decline. Japan's policy appears irrational -- just as irrational as the industrial world's cultural, economic and philosophical resistance to carbon reductions in the face of climate change.

The willingness of most nations to impose a ban on bluefin tuna is cause for hope. The resistance from Japan, and broader crisis in global fisheries, shows the need for continued and widespread action on these issues.

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What can you do?

  • Include the upcoming CITES meeting in your congregation's prayers. Name international action to protect and restore endangered species as a matter of moral concern.

  • Make responsible choices about the fish that you eat. The Seafood Watch program of the Monterey Bay Aquarium provides guidance on which species are recommended, and which to avoid.

  • Study the biological and economic issues of fishing industry, and what options are available for more sustainable practices. The video, "Empty Oceans, Empty Nets"is a good resource for group study.

  • Use Japan's resistance to limits on bluefin tuna (and to whaling) to have a conversation about the importance of worldviews and culture in the quest for sustainability. What can we see in Japan that provides insights about the cultural and philosophical changes needed for a turn toward more sustainable economies?

  • Write a letter to the editor, or post a comment on news stories, to hold the Japanese government accountable for their refusal to abide by the necessary ban on bluefin tuna.
Bluefin tuna are a dramatic example in this month's news about the larger issue of endangered fisheries. May those news reports deepen our awareness and concern for the health of God's creation. May we be motivated to work toward the technical, cultural, economic and philosophical changes that can turn us toward a more sustainable society.

Shalom!

Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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