In an age and state where the word “patriotism” has been misinterpreted, manipulated, maligned, and mangled beyond recognition, it is often difficult to discern not only what it means to be patriotic, but what it means to be an American. In my experience, it is only on a rare day that it becomes unnecessary to differentiate between vying definitions – nationalistic pride, support of entrenched policies, endorsement of governmental shift, facebook-friendship of standing politicians, etc. – before I can state without equivocation that I am proud to be an American.
Today is one of those days.
Early this morning, Tom Strickland, the assistant secretary for fish, wildlife and parks at the US Department of the Interior, finally stood up against those who would doom the beleaguered Northern bluefin tuna to death by sushi knife. Citing the management failures of the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) and underscoring the unquestionable peril in which this noble fish finds itself, Strickland announced that the Obama administration will indeed be supporting Monaco’s proposal to list the Northern bluefin tuna under CITES Appendix 1.
This is a game-changer. The world’s largest economy has finally weighed in on one of the most pressing issues facing the ocean conservation movement – the simple fact that commercially exploited fish have thus far been utterly ignored by the institutionalized international processes designed to offer respite to endangered species. The Northern bluefin tuna, decimated by the rapacity of the global sushi industry and of bluefin traders like the Mitsubishi corporation, has hitherto been largely ignored by the world’s protectionary bodies in favor of ICCAT, a malfunctioning, incoherent (mis)management system that has brought the bluefin to the brink of the abyss… but perhaps this is finally at an end.
The United States government’s role in this ecological chess match is unique. Even though US economy does not have a significant share of the world’s bluefin production, it does constitute a sizable share of overall consumption. Certainly it is not on a scale to match Japan (the world’s foremost consumer of bluefin, devouring approximately 80% of all bluefin tuna yanked from our ailing oceans) but the US sushi industry has exploded in recent years, bringing with it a skyrocketing demand for bluefin tuna. Many of the world’s most well-known sushi icons are based in the United States, and there is no shortage of American consumers willing to shell out fat stacks of greenbacks for the ephemeral bliss of a two-bite communion with Our Lady of O-toro. As such, the US is more than just a global economic engine in this scenario. The conviction of the Obama administration to stand behind Monaco’s proposal is a food policy statement – an admission that as we as a global community grow, we need to begin to make difficult choices, and that desire and wealth can no longer stand alone as the market mechanisms that drive our luxury food supply. We must begin to temper them with an awareness of the impacts our choices have on our environment.
Certainly this is not the end of the struggle. Whether or not the bluefin will receive the support and protection it requires will be decided by a conference of all CITES parties in Doha, Qatar, later this month – and it will likely be a bloody affair. Japan vehemently opposes the proposal and is expected to break out every weapon in its considerable arsenal in defense of its hard-line position. China, too, has announced its opposition to the listing. Support for the proposal within the European Union is tenuous at best and could still sour. Many other countries, such as Australia (which has a bluefin industry of its own, albeit a different stock and species), New Zealand, and Brazil remain on the fence. There is still a great deal of work to do.
So while the champagne moment is yet to come, I would suggest making some room in the fridge to chill a bottle or two. The support of the Obama administration was an absolute necessity if the bluefin is to survive the CITES gauntlet, and with it secured, there may just be some hope for the world’s most expensive fish – and, symbolically, for the oceans themselves – after all.