I’ve spent a good deal of sweat and ink venting about the ignominious state of the bluefin tuna. Overfishing and piracy has led to crashing populations across the globe. Abysmal mismanagement by the relevant regional fishery management organizations (RFMOs) such as the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) has allowed stocks to dwindle to tiny fractions of what they once were. If current trends continue, we will be bidding a final farewell to the noble bluefin in the very near future.
Still, it takes long hours spent in darkness to appreciate the light of dawn. Thanks to an unforeseen twist of fate — including an ironic change of heart by France’s President Sarkozy, who, a few months ago, would have seen the fish hunted to oblivion — I’m thrilled to finally be able to report a positive turn of events chez bluefin.
On February 10, the European Parliament confirmed its support for stricter protection of the Northern bluefin tuna. In a plenary session, the parliamentary members signaled their support for a ban on the trade of the critically endangered fish, as well as for financial compensation for those European fishermen affected by the decision.
Now, the important thing to remember here is that the European Parliament does not in fact have the power to make this kind of decision. According to the mind-numbing morass of legislation that makes up the Gordian bureaucracy of the European Union, this resolution by the Parliament is in fact a recommendation to the Council of the European Union, a separate legislative body representing the same countries that will vote to either reject the proposal or to formalize the EU’s support of the ban.
And it doesn’t end there.
Europe can’t do this by itself. The plan is to award the Northern bluefin this protection under the Convention on the International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES), an international body tasked with restricting the trade of key species in order to protect endangered populations. The next CITES meeting will take place in mid-March in Doha, Qatar, and is expected to be well attended.
Protections under CITES are awarded via a majority vote of participating nations. The EU votes as a bloc at CITES, but there are many other countries as well that also all receive a vote. One of these countries is Japan.
Japan is expected to vehemently oppose any proposal that would restrict its ability to source the exorbitantly valuable Northern bluefin tuna from the withered stocks of the North Atlantic and Mediterranean. No doubt Tokyo’s resolute determination is far more galvanized than the shaky compromise arising amidst grumbles and groans in Brussels. In fact, even if this clumsy amalgamation of European agendas — including those of Greece, Spain, and Malta, which are very unhappy with the idea of protecting the bluefin tuna — avoids strangling itself with red tape long enough for the EU to vote to protect this imperiled animal, we will still have our work cut out for us. Japan is an influential power at CITES, and will likely pull out all the stops in order to ward off what would be both an powerful symbolic precedent (the first time a commercially important pelagic fish has been awarded CITES protection) and a significant blow to the global bluefin industry (an enterprise controlled largely by the Japanese zaibatsu Mitsubishi.)
Thus do we look to Obama.
If we are to protect this fish, the United States must step up and stand with Europe. Washington has been deafeningly silent on this issue — before the last ICCAT meeting in Recife, Brazil, Jane Lubchenco stated that the US would turn to more drastic measures, such as CITES, should ICCAT fail again. ICCAT failed again. The US did nothing.
Now is the time to change that. The European Union’s support for this trade ban is tenuous at best and could fall apart at any moment due to short-sited interests within Mediterranean member countries. Still, the EU’s parliamentary vote was unexpectedly positive and offers us an unprecedented chance to strike a powerful blow for the sake of a future buoyed by healthy, productive oceans.
It’s not every day that we can stand up, raise our voices, and save an endangered species. Today we can. President Obama — this is our chance. Do the right thing.