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Tuna Collapse Making Waves

Prepared by: Toni Johnson
July 19, 2007

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Overfishing, competition from fish farms, water pollution, and government subsidies to fishermen have brought bluefin tuna stocks to near collapse (TIME). The issue led to finger-pointing (IHT) by the United States and the European Union, each of which regards the other as the culprit. But it is the Japanese, consumers of the most bluefin tuna in the world (Economist), who will bear the consequences.

Cutbacks on the international tuna quota, down to 29,500 tons in 2007 from thirty-two thousand tons last year, mean the popular sushi ingredient could become more scarce and expensive. The World Wildlife Fund, an environmental group, says it would take a 50 percent cut (PDF) in quotas to keep the fish stocks healthy. Such quotas often encounter fierce resistance from commercial and recreational fishermen. Lobbyists for the sushi and fishing industries claim that controls on harvesting tuna “threaten traditional Japanese culture” (NYT).

International Herald Tribune columnist Philip Bowring writes: “At this rate, it will not be long before tuna is as scarce as North Atlantic cod, the first of the big fisheries to have killed itself through greed.” Ellen K. Pikitch, executive director of the Pew Institute for Ocean Science, says in this CFR.org Podcast that the world has “not only reached but exceeded the limit of the sea,” pointing out that there are very few fish populations left that have not been exploited. A study released last year found that all seafood populations face collapse by 2048 (Science), meaning “clambakes, crabcakes, swordfish steaks and even humble fish sticks could be little more than a fond memory” (WashPost). But the U.S. seafood industry’s National Fisheries Institute discounted the study, arguing that “fish stocks naturally fluctuate in population.” In addition to overfishing and pollution, global warming contributes to depleting fish stocks (Australian) by changing ocean habitats, including damaging fragile coral reefs, melting sea ice, and warming waters.

Although aquaculture (fish farming) can help take pressure off wild fisheries and provide needed income to coastal communities, it also causes pollution, attracts parasites, and competes for resources with wild fish. Nearly half of all fish eaten globally comes from fish farming, according to a recent report (PDF) by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization. The FAO says demand for fish, especially by developing nations, continues to climb at a time when commercial output from wild fisheries seems to have “reached a ceiling.” Noting projections of a global shortfall of forty million tons of seafood by 2030, it says the United States hopes to dramatically increase fish farming (AFP) off U.S. coasts.

With ocean biodiversity diminishing, the United Nations recently met to discuss management of exploitation of the world’s marine resources under the Law of the Sea Treaty. Some countries called for a new legal framework for “bioprospecting,” which could put already taxed marine environments at further risk. Other nations maintained that the accord guaranteed the right of all nations to conduct research on marine resources, including bioprospecting and exploitation. This Backgrounder discusses the role of the treaty in managing fisheries and ocean resources.

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