Taking Tuna to the Cleaners

They think nothing of traveling back and forth across the Atlantic in less than 60 days time.  They can swim 55 miles-per-hour in sudden bursts.  They can grow to over 15' long, weigh up to 1,400 pounds and live for 40 years.  They are warm-blooded.  They are Atlantic bluefin tuna and, based on current trends, they're swimming straight into extinction.

Bluefin tuna are prized by sushi connoisseurs, so much so that a single bluefin has been sold at market for $180,000.  Those kinds of prices clearly attract a lot of attention from the fishing industry and the nations that host it, but they also invite a lot of corruption and a thriving black market.

The International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) is an intergovernmental organization responsible for managing and conserving bluefin, as well as several other marine species.  But ICCAT’s job performance has earned it a different name from its critics: the International Conspiracy to Catch All Tuna.  Nevertheless, ICCAT soldiered on with yet another bid to end the 40-year-long tuna tailspin at an 11-day meeting in Paris that concluded last weekend.

So how did this once highly-abundant fish species find itself on the precipice?  When it comes to Atlantic bluefin tuna, all roads lead to Japan, the consumer of 80 percent of the global bluefin market.  Starting in the 1970s, the Japanese fell into a heady love affair with the fatty flesh of bluefin tuna.  At the time, Japanese exports to the United States were booming, but flying empty cargo planes, once loaded with American-bound electronics, back to Japan was a money loser.  A savvy Japanese businessman realized that he could buy cheap bluefin tuna caught in Canadian and New England waters and fly them back in those empty cargo holds, straight into the welcoming arms of a burgeoning Japanese luxury sushi market.

Needless to say, it turned out to be a pretty good business model.

The problem is, business became a little too good, at least from the bluefin’s perspective.  A recent report by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) exhaustively described what came next.  First, a highly-subsidized fleet of European tuna fishing vessels exploded onto the Mediterranean Sea with an ability to catch far more bluefin tuna than the capacity of the stock could bear.

Then in the 1990s, Japanese corporations began to fund a tuna ranching system in the Mediterranean, in which young bluefin were caught and transferred live into ranches where they were fattened up like livestock, shot in the head and then shipped to Japan.

And North African countries began to welcome European tuna fishermen into their unregulated Mediterranean waters, provided that businesses and corrupt officials in those countries got a healthy cut of the action.

Between 1998 and 2007, a fishing free-for-all period referred to as “the jungle” by scientists and fishermen, annual catches were up to three times more than what scientists deemed sustainable, and the number of Atlantic bluefin old enough to reproduce hit a record low.

The bluefin black market was making a killing during those years, raking in an estimated $4 billion.  As in any criminal enterprise, the ill-gotten goods, in this case tuna, had to be laundered to hide the trail of corruption.  The ICIJ explains:

“Techniques included under-declaring the amount of tuna acquired, killed, or traded; mixing legal catches with illegal catches; exaggerating the fattening rates of tuna to account for the extra weight of illegal fish; and transferring illegal fish to ranches in less regulation states.”

And all the while, European Union member nations were blatantly fixing the catch numbers.  In such a climate, bluefin tuna didn’t stand a chance.

But there have been some recent positive signs.  Japanese officials have started to at least take a closer look at tuna catch documentation, in some cases turning away fish with a highly-suspicious history.  In France, a 2007 catch that was twice as large as the country’s allotted bluefin tuna quota led to public outrage and a criminal investigation.  And the plight of Atlantic bluefin tuna has earned much higher public visibility thanks to media-savvy nonprofits like Greenpeace, World Wildlife Fund and the Pew Charitable Trusts.

Still it all comes back to the bureaucratic body called ICCAT.

Perhaps predictably, several Mediterranean-bordering countries said “no” in just the opening days of the recent ICCAT meeting to the EU’s plan to cut the current bluefin catch quota by half.  Instead, the participating nations could only agree to a pathetic 4 percent reduction in next year’s catch.  According to ICCAT’s own scientists, maintaining the current bluefin quota gives the stock a 40 percent chance of collapse, and that doesn’t even take into consideration the large black market for the fish.

In a recent conference call, fisheries scientist Andre Boustany explained: “To stick with the status quo, where you're already maxing out at the upper limit and there’s potentially illegal, unreported, unregulated fishing on top of that, what you're going to see is no rebuilding in the best case scenario, and continued downtrend in the most likely scenario.”

If nations can’t even agree to cut a virtually imaginary quota in half, much less call for a temporary halt to fishing the endangered fish, what hope can bluefin tuna really have?

There is at least one positive example to hang your hat on: the North Atlantic swordfish conservation movement in the 1990s.  While the population of swordfish wasn’t in as bad a state as bluefin is today, pressure from responsible fishermen and environmentalists – remember “Give Swordfish a Break?” – forced an international fisheries commission to finally pull together a coherent rebuilding plan, and now a once-threatened species is rebounding.

The name of the international commission that played such a crucial role?  Our reluctant friends, ICCAT.

There may be hope yet.