04 Mar 2010: Opinion

After Two Decades of Delay,
A Chance to Save Bluefin Tuna

The obscenely profitable market for bluefin tuna in Japan has led to years of overfishing and left the world’s bluefin population badly depleted. A ban on the bluefin trade, if adopted at international talks this month, would go a long way toward giving this magnificent fish a chance to recover.

by carl safina

Twenty years ago, I first proposed a ban on international trade in Atlantic bluefin tuna. The population that breeds in the Gulf of Mexico was down by about 80 percent. The population that breeds in the Mediterranean was down by half. Now, things are worse, and the principality of Monaco has made another proposal to ban international trade in this species. It is gaining momentum, and on March 3 the United States announced its support for the initiative. The European Union, which has been wavering in the face of pressure from its fishing industry and Japan, should now end its fence sitting and get behind this proposal.

Such a trade ban is enacted under a treaty called CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species). CITES is why, for instance, there’s a ban on ivory (which is why there are still elephants in Africa).

Photo gallery

Photo by Gavin Newman/AFP/Getty Images
Bluefin tuna reach weights of more than 1,000 pounds and migrate the full length of the Atlantic.
The bluefin is an awe-inspiring creature, a warm-blooded fish capable of swimming at highway speeds, crossing oceans, and reaching weights well over a thousand pounds.

Because bluefin tuna fishing worldwide is driven by prices paid in Japan, where individual fish have sold wholesale for up to $175,000, every population is depleted. A population in the tropical Atlantic, which in the 1960s had yielded the highest-ever catches of bluefin anywhere in the Atlantic Ocean, appears extinct. Formerly thriving fisheries in the North Sea are gone. In some recent years, U.S. boats have landed only about 15 percent as many fish as two decades ago. The European population is now in a plummeting tailspin.

Driving all this, remember, is prices paid in Japan. An international trade ban would quell the intensity of the fishing. But a lot of money is at stake.

Fish from both the American- and Mediterranean-spawned populations breed separately, but mix in open-ocean feeding areas. Part of the sharp decline U.S. boats are feeling is from American overfishing of the past, and the most recent drop is largely from rampant European
The proposal for a ban has gained surprising momentum headed into this month’s CITES meeting.
overfishing in the last decade. Since I drafted the initial proposal (which Sweden formally took to CITES in 1992), things have only gotten worse.

So last year, the principality of Monaco proposed a trade ban under CITES. A lot of fishing-industry lobbying pressure — in the U.S., in Europe, and in Japan — moved immediately against the proposal. They were looking for a repeat of what happened in 1992, when they succeeded in blocking an open vote in exchange for a few orchestrated, soon-forgotten promises from the fishing sector.

This time, things are different. The plight of fisheries is much more widely known, the scale of the fishing enterprise more ghastly, the fish more depleted, the effects on small-scale fishing interests (which might otherwise be catching bluefin tuna in a sustainable fishery) more acute. And with a world economy brought to the brink of collapse by greedy excess, the image of Japanese bankers gnawing bits of flesh from a fish costing $175,000 is no longer a vicarious curiosity, but rather distinctly less palatable.

Photo gallery

Photo by STR/AFP/Getty Images
Fishmongers check the quality of meat on large tuna at Tokyo’s Tsukiji fish market in 2007.
And so, this time, the proposal is gathering surprising momentum. Much of the decision-making is happening well before the actual CITES meeting convenes March 13 to 25 in Doha, Qatar, as various bodies weigh in and countries announce their support or opposition. It’s enormously significant that the U.N. has determined that the giant tuna meets the criteria for an international trade ban, and even the international tuna commission that — ineffectively — manages bluefin tuna fishing agrees that it does. The European Commission, which determines the European Union’s fisheries policy, has recommended that the EU’s 27 member nations (which vote as a bloc at CITES) support the ban. But the EU, still debating, has taken no official stance. Its position will now be pivotal.

Even if international trade is banned, bluefin tuna could still be caught and sold within any given country. But the fish are now sufficiently scarce that without Japan’s prices, many boats would turn unprofitable and give up. The fish could recover, and a more sustainable fishery develop.

With some of Europe’s major countries and the European Commission now calling for a trade ban — and with support by the U.S. — it is disappointing that the European Union remains uncommitted. In fact, every country with a stake in the future of the sea — should vote to ban international trade in bluefin tuna. The world needs to let this thousand-pound powerhouse of a fish recover from Japan’s insane lust for its flesh and the ensuing seagoing buffalo hunt.

POSTED ON 04 Mar 2010 IN Biodiversity Biodiversity Climate Energy Forests Oceans Policy & Politics Pollution & Health Sustainability Water 


My stand here may be strange, but I stand here to protect my culture. Of course, I assume the majority of reader here are the residents of US and it may be strange and weird to you all that we eat the fish and Tuna regularly in any meals from breakfast to dinner. The complete ban will limit and alter our eating habits and culture.

You need to understand there are so many people, whose income depends on fishing/importing/exporting Tuna. When the ban of commercial fishing of while was instituted, many fishermen and people lost their jobs. Many villages and towns in Japan were wiped off.

Also, we just don't slaughter Tuna for the human's ego. We always appreciate their sacrfice. In fact, we usually have a shrine that dedicates and appreciate the sacrafice.
Tuna is part of our daily life.

Also, don't label us "insane lust" to look for the freshest Tuna. It seems to me that you disrepect our culture. We don't eat meat and if you come from a country, where meat is eaten regularly, you always looks for the freshest meat, don't you?

Lastly, I just want to tell that eating Tuna is our culture. We all can't imagine the alternative fish of Tuna. It is so nutritious and affordable. I hope people respects our culture before going to the conclusion first.

Posted by Taka on 04 Mar 2010

Carl, Please address the issues of off-shore tuna mariculture.
thanks for all of your dedication and efforts. Prosper, Nikki

Posted by nicole caputo on 04 Mar 2010

A powerful argument for the ban on the international Bluefin trade. Hopefully the European Union and everyone else will side with Dr. Safina and give these majestic creatures a chance to once again be masters of the seas.

Posted by Arnold Rodemeyer on 04 Mar 2010

Yes, and don't forget their insane appetite for whale meat also. And last but not least the insanity of putting this magnificent fish into cans and selling for cheap at the supermarket and killing dolphins in the process. I have given up on buying any kind of tuna in any form, canned, frozen or at the sushi bar long ago. Consumers need to be educated and Blue Ocean Institute is doing a great job on that front.

Posted by Matt Schulze on 04 Mar 2010

As Churchill said, "You can always count on Americans to do the right thing - after they've tried everything else."

U.S. support for the bluefin's CITES listing is great news for anyone who cares about the oceans, and I applaud the US for finally committing to it - though of course it'd have been even better if they'd co-signed Monaco's proposal last October instead of vacillating.

I do wonder, though, what's to stop Japan from using CITES' provisions for objections. They have used the objections clauses many times before. If a formal objection can keep the Japanese market open, then just how effective is the listing really going to be? And that's assuming it even passes - don't forget that Monaco's proposal was in response to the EU's failure to agree to reduce bluefin quotas at ICCAT last fall.

Posted by Tse Yang Lim on 04 Mar 2010

Great! Good news indeed!!!

Please, tell us what can we do to help, even in countries such as Argentina, where buefins aren´t much consumed... Thanks so much!

Posted by Jorge Mermoz on 05 Mar 2010

RE:Taka - your argument that a "complete ban will limit and alter our eating habits and culture" is questionable, as fatty tuna did not become part of the Japanese sushi diet until after WWII. Before that, tuna was considered a "trash fish" and rarely eaten - it was only as the Japanese diet became more westernized that demand for fatty tuna grew.

There are other substitutes available for the bluefin such as Bigeye or yellowfin, which are more affordable, just as delicious, and not in danger of extinction (yet).

I personally can't imagine Japanese culture and traditions going extinct as a result of one type of tuna being removed from sushi menus. However, should Japan succeed in blocking the bluefin from being added to CITES, it is likely that it will disappear from menus in a few short years anyway.

Supporting the ban and allowing for bluefin populations to recover to sustainable levels is the only real way for bluefin to remain on sushi menus in Japan and the rest of the world.

Posted by Neil on 05 Mar 2010

Hi Taka San

Just trying to understand. A 1000 pounds fish at 175,000$ would be 175$ per pound.
You say that Tuna is affordable?

BTW, even if you do ban it, the fish is so depleted that it will most likely be gone in the next 10 years. So enjoy it while you can because your children won't.

For decades, Cod was overfished. Since Canada had a ban on the Cod in 1992, stock has not recovered and is Cod is now an among endangered species since 2000.
Last reserve of Cod are in Barents sea and will be gone in 10 years. We no longer fish Cod but 18 years and no recovery in view...

Posted by Pierre-Andre on 06 Mar 2010

Please be clear; I know Dr. Safina would want you to: The tuna in cans is NOT bluefin tuna.

There are some tunas caught sustainably, and you can learn about them from numerous seafood guides and eat them with a clear conscience.

Moreover, work of advocates from Blue Ocean and other NGOs has helped reduce mortality of dolphins caught in association with tuna to less than one percent.

Posted by Suzanne Iudicello on 07 Mar 2010

We learned a long time that we simply cannot sustainably harvest resources endlessly from terrestrial ecosystems in order to feed ever denser human populations. These lessons are precisely what initiated agriculture and animal husbandry thousands of years in the past. Essentially the only wild animals that we continue to exploit on a large scale for human consumption are marine resources, especially certain groups of fishes. Because these organisms are not visible across the landscape, their loss through over-exploitation has not been as obvious and the lesson has been excruciatingly slower to be absorbed.

In the end, no matter what the excuses, pretexts or negotiations, financial or cultural, the realities of production and harvest cannot be ignored. Like it or not, everyone who consumes animal protein from whatever source should at least be backing off on their level of consumption. With another billion human mouths entering the food chain so quickly, everyone will have to accept restrictions, either voluntarily as part of management strategies or obligatorily upon extinction of the species involved.

Posted by Kelly Swing on 08 Mar 2010

The catch and sell no matter what fishing industry is not-so-slowly driving themselves, along with their catch, to extinction. All Nations, the EU in particular at this moment, should heed the following Native American Proverb: Only when the last tree has been cut down; Only when the last river has been poisoned; Only when the last fish has been caught; Only then will you find that money cannot be eaten. This should be sent to all.

Posted by J.G. Weiser on 08 Mar 2010

I'm sorry, Taka, but this doesn't have anything to do with culture. There are plenty of fish you can eat without decimating the bluefin population. At this juncture, there is no possible justification for continuting to fish the Atlantic bluefin. If they are required for your culture, your culture won't last long, because they won't last long. Maybe it's time for you to adapt to changing conditions, to look around and think about something besides you and your taste buds. We should all be working to maintain the population of this magnificent animal that, in may ways, has evolved far beyond human capabilities.

Posted by ahunter on 13 Mar 2010

Comments have been closed on this feature.
Carl Safina, a marine biologist, is president of the Blue Ocean Institute, an adjunct professor at Stony Brook University, and a MacArthur Fellow. He is the author of the award-winning books Song of the Blue Ocean and Eye of the Albatross. In an earlier article for Yale Environment360, he warned that a controversial decision by the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas threatened to doom Atlantic bluefin tuna.



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