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America half-steps up

Earlier this week, Dr. Jane Lubchenco, Under Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere as well as NOAA Admisistrator – not to mention a member of President Obama’s Ocean Taskforce – finally broke the silence by officially weighing in on bluefin tuna.

Lubchenco: turning the tide?

Lubchenco: turning the tide?

Lubchenco announced that the United States is “sending a clear and definitive statement to the international community that the status quo is not acceptable.”  She formally acknowledged the peril facing the Northern bluefin tuna, citing stock declines of 72% and 82% in the eastern and western populations, respectively.  The good Doctor levels blame for these declines directly at the ineffectual International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT), as well as the irresponsible activities of certain countries that target bluefin in the Eastern Mediterranean.

Lubchenco calls for ICCAT to address overfishing by setting responsible quotas, increasing enforcement, and instituting fishing closures during spawning periods.   She then goes on to declare the United States’ “strong support” for Monaco’s proposal to prohibit the international trade of the species by way of a CITES Appendix I listing.

Sounds great, right?  And it is, in a way.  It’s a strong proclamation that lets the world know the United States is seriously concerned about this issue.   So why aren’t I out in the street right now, lighting fireworks and drinking to excess?

What’s more important than what Dr. Lubchenco said is what she didn’t say.  Specifically, one particular word, the absence of which leaves me worried and somewhat dismayed.

That word is “sponsor.”

They just needed a friend

They just needed a friend

Lubchenco’s statement, while full of authority and righteous indignation, undercuts itself by failing to take up Monaco’s proposal whole-heartedly and champion it at the upcoming CITES meeting in March.  Here’s what I mean:

Sponsoring the proposal would have meant that the United States would have submitted Monaco’s resolution to the CITES parties itself.

Strongly supporting the proposal means that the United States is behind the idea in theory, but won’t stand alone to bring it to the table for due consideration and a vote.

Mangement at its finest

Management at its finest

The United States’ government has cast its weight behind a plan that would theoretically repair ICCAT rather than seek endangered species status for the bluefin.  And yes, there is some merit to this.  If ICCAT had the capacity to set quotas based on ecologically sustainable yield (ESY) as well as the teeth to enforce them in the face of pirates and greedy European bureaucrats (you listening, Joe Borg?) – then it just might work.  In fact, by demonstrating its capacity to rebuild the tuna stock in the face of unrelenting market pressure, it could even prove a model for other fishery management tools.  But based on ICCAT’s shameful history, not to mention the infuriating myopia and relentless rapacity demonstrated by some of the countries participating in ICCAT, I am forced to remain skeptical.

While Lubchenco’s statement rings loudly, its effectiveness is yet to be determined.  The gap between sponsorship and strong support is wide indeed – potentially wide enough to swallow up all that’s left of the once-mighty bluefin tuna.

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It takes a village

A slice of paradise

Nice slice of paradise

Monaco-Ville, also known as Le Rocher (the Rock), is a tiny little town tucked inside the tiny little pleasure garden that is the sovereign nation of Monaco.  Comprising about one tenth of the total area of the Riviera’s pocket Principality, this little hamlet is home to just over a thousand souls – many of them extremely rich. One resident in particular has achieved an astonishing degree of fame and fortune, merely by being the son of his equally diamond-encrusted parents: His Serene Highness Albert Grimaldi II, the Sovereign Prince of Monaco.

Albert Grimaldi’s home, the Prince’s Palace of Monaco, is a mansion of celestial stature that adorns the highest point in Monaco-Ville like a diamond tiara atop a prom queen.  It is a place of both breathtaking beauty and incalculable real estate value.  Still, despite his lavish digs and lofty title, Prince Albert and his Robin Leach-baiting lifestyle would not normally interest me (well, at least not for the purposes of this blog, but… I mean, come on, Grace Kelly was the guy’s mom.  How can my curiosity not be at least a little piqued?)  However, Prince Albert is not your everyday European kazillionaire blueblood head-of-state celebrity jet-setter.

Turns out he’s a European kazillionaire blueblood head-of-state celebrity jet-setter environmentalist.

The Prince's royal seal?

The royal seal?

Prince Albert is no slouch when it comes to saving the planet.  He has worked diligently to dismantle the Monaco Zoo, repatriate the animals into the wild, and transform the facility into a children’s park (although he does keep two nerpa seal pups which were presented to him by the Russian governor of Irkutsk).  He served as the patron of the Year of the Dolphin, a title given to the year 2007 (and later extened to 2008) by the United Nations.  He even took a trip to visit 26 different bases and research facilities in Antarctica to learn about the effects of climate change on the ice-clad continent.  Still, this was all just a prologue to what the Prince did about a month ago.

In June of 2009, Prince Albert co-authored a letter to the Wall Street Journal with Charles Clover, the author of The End of the Line. In the letter, the Prince openly decried the annual embarrassment that is the European Union bluefin quota.  He also acknowledged that the species is indeed endangered and that it merits legal protection rather than the unchecked over-exploitation it is suffering at present.

He concluded his regal communiqué with a masterstroke – a formal announcement that Monaco will propose to have Mediterranean bluefin listed as an endangered species under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).

Check me out

Not exactly life-size

The challenge has been that most people are unaware of how amazing this animal really is.  Most people have never seen a bluefin tuna, as these majestic creatures spend their lives swimming in the deep blue currents of the Atlantic ocean.  Most don’t know that if you let a bluefin tuna reach full maturity, they can weigh over 1000 pounds and exceed 10 feet in length.  The actual percentage of the global population that has ever seen a living bluefin tuna up close is too small to calculate.

As such, the country of Monaco, with its population of just over 30,000, is little more than a village on the international stage, but has nevertheless set a tremendous precedent here.  Under the guidance of its monarch, Monaco stepped up and took a stand against a barbaric and unconscionable practice that is occurring just a scant few miles from its glitterati-strewn shores.  A nation that is only rarely awarded delineation on a schoolbook map had taken a position at odds with those historically espoused by its comparatively gargantuan neighbors, its most important trade partners, and nearly every other country in the world.

A month later, the world was able to see Monaco as the leader it truly is.

Dyanmic duo

Brothers in bluefin

On July 16th, 2009, le President lui-meme, M. Nicholas Sarkozy, announced that France, too, would be seeking to list Mediterranean bluefin under CITES.  This was a tremendous blow to the bluefin industry; while Monaco is neither an EU member nor a powerful enough state to pose a threat at the Convention meetings, France is both.  To compound the impact, later in the same day – a day which could be called “Thunnus Thursday” – a similar proclamation rang out in the streets of London.  Huw Irranca-Davies, Minister of Fisheries for the United Kingdom, declared that the UK would join France and Monaco in support of this noble goal.

While it is too early to predict the full ramifications of these events, it is extremely likely that the next CITES Conference – currently scheduled to be held in Qatar in March 2010 – will be quite a pyrotechnic show.  Countries like Japan and Spain have invested tremendous amounts of money in the Mediterranean bluefin fishery, and are predicted to vociferously oppose the listing.

So what can we do as individuals to support the actions of Monaco, France, and the UK?  How can we make our voices heard above the din of the political machine that is propelling the bluefin towards utter extinction?

  • Get him on board

    Get him on board

    Step One: Urge the USA to Join Monaco, France, and the UK. The world looked on as France and the UK rallied to Monaco’s call and formally announced their support to list the Mediterranean bluefin tuna as an endangered species.  Now we as American consumers need to show our support by urging the US government to join France, the UK and Monaco in moving to protect the bluefin.

Action:  Sign this on-line petition to support the USA joining France, UK and Monaco.

  • Step Two: Make smart choices when you eat fish. Not all tuna species are endangered.  Consumers can still buy tuna, both canned and fresh, and not contribute to the demise of our oceans.  Look for tuna that is taken from healthy and well-managed populations, and that is caught in sustainable and environmentally benign methods.   The same applies to sushi.  You can still eat delicious sushi and make smart choices.

Action:  Check blogs like Sustainable Sushi for ideas on making smart sushi choices at the sushi bar.  Visit Seafood Watch to learn more about what seafood options are sustainable, and Greenpeace for a rundown of which seafood retailers are responsible.

  • Step Three: Practice catch & release. If you enjoy sportfishing for tuna, especially bluefin tuna,
    I'll be back

    "I'll be back"

    consider practicing catch and release.  One can have all the thrills of offshore sportfishing and still release these trophy fish to live another day.  In fact, anglers and charter boats can join a catch and release program that gives these environmentally aware fishermen recognition and incentive for releasing bluefin tuna back into the ocean.

Action:  Practice catch and release if you fish recreationally.

  • Step Four: Have a voice – join the conservation community.  There are thousands of other people who care about the bluefin tuna.  If you want to meet others who care and have a voice or ask a question simply look online.  There are social networks, research sites and eating guides that are easily found.  Additionally, one of the most powerful things one can do is to simply tell your friends about this watershed issue.  If you are on Twitter, tweet about your concern.  If you are on Facebook, tell your friends how they can help.  If you blog, blog about bluefin.  You will find many people that are eager to learn and supportive of this most important cause.

Action:  Get involved, sign up and voice your concern.

  • Step Five: Support critical research. Learning about how these amazing tuna behave and breed is critical if we are to enact successful management policies.  Support for bluefin research is needed now more than ever.

Action: Check out the Tag A Giant Foundation, where you can learn about the work that’s been done by some of the world’s foremost marine scientists.  The members of this crew have dedicated their lives to bluefin research and are borderline fanatical in their devotion to the animal.  A good group.

Join me

Follow the leader

If we are to save these gentle giants, the time is now.  Monaco, France and the UK are giving the bluefin a chance, and it is up to the rest of the world to continue the momentum.  We have the power to save the mighty bluefin, but only if our voices unite to demand it.

As for Prince Albert, none of this would have happened without his insight, his courage, and the small but undeniable voice of his Lilliputian homeland.  Sometimes it really does take a village to change the world (thanks, Hillary.)

This article was co-authored by John LoGioco and Casson Trenor.

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Why Nobu must evolve

Anyone who has listened to the radio, watched television, read a newspaper, surfed the internet, or chased after celebrity gossip in the past couple of weeks has likely heard about something about a particular sushi chain getting called out for a history of nefarious behavior.

The chain in question in Nobu, the fantastically successful joint venture of renowned chef Nobu Matsuhisa, the Raging Bull himself Robert De Niro, and three other partners. Nobu is a sushi giant, with twenty-four locations that dot the most chic neighboorhoods of many of the world’s most glamourous cities, and a menu replete with dozens of price tags that would make the average recession-choked American both green with envy and red with rage.

Countdown to extinction

Countdown to extinction

Nobu is under siege from all sides for its continual disregard for the health of our planet.  The high-end chain sells a tremendous amount of bluefin tuna, much of which is critically endangered Northern bluefin (Thunnus thynnus) from the Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean Sea.  Despite repeated warnings about the looming commercial extinction of this majestic fish from a vast international amalgamation of scientists, actors, conservation organizations, foodies, bloggers, aquaria, filmmakers, and even a European Prince, Nobu resolutely presses forward, offering no comment and refusing to alter its menu in the slightest.  The restaurant’s response is akin to a tantrum-throwing child clapping his hands over his ears while stomping his feet, or perhaps to a yoked horse charging towards a cliff regardless of its own life or the lives of those in the stagecoach attached to it.  Nobu’s arrogant denial of the reality of our mutual challenge — the continual decline of the health of our oceans — is a serious problem.

Not in my ocean: Elle MacPhearson is one of the many celebrities boycotting Nobu

Not in my ocean: Elle MacPhearson is one of the many celebrities boycotting Nobu

But this is not about just one restaurant.  Nobu is a symbol; it represents the old guard of restaurateurs whose lofty perches often distance them from the plebeian masses.  Moreover, Nobu is a rallying point — as an endangered species-slinging, celebrity-owned, stratospherically-priced haunt for the upper crust, it’s a perfect target for those who are itching for a greater level of corporate responsibility within the restaurant industry.

For those of you who are not yet aware, I have recently accepted the position of Senior Markets Campaigner for one of my favorite conservation organizations, GreenpeaceThis does not indicate the convergence of Greenpeace and www.sustainablesushi.net, which remains an independent forum – but the arrangement allows me to work with a large group of passionate individuals towards the greater goal of a healthy planet.  One of the ways that we can reach this goal is through the reformation of the sushi industry, and there’s no better way to accomplish this than to get some high-level trendsetters on board.  Enter Nobu.

Nobu has already been “outed” on their unsustainable practices (this interaction is featured in the forthcoming documentary The End of the Line, based on the excellent book by Charles Clover).  Nobu promised to label bluefin as an endangered species on all of their menus, but subsequently changed tactics and cut off communications.  The one menu that reflects any change whatsoever is at the London branch, which uses a microscopic footnote to indicate that bluefin is “environmentally challenged.”  This thunderous understatement aside, Nobu has done absolutely nothing to protect that very fish which has so heavily contributed to the jingling pockets of the restaurant’s owners.  Our oceans cannot endure this situation any longer.  Enter Greenpeace.

I am not a fan of direct confrontation.  I view it as an avenue of last resort, only to be used when all other tactics have been exhausted.  In this case, Nobu has been stonewalling environmental entreaty for over a year while the chain contiunues to plunder the ocean for its own insatiable greed.  To expose and spotlight this edacious behavior, John Hocevar, Greenpeace’s Oceans Campaign Director, developed a mock Nobu menu — a Swiftian satire of Nobu’s reckless quest for profit at all costs.  What is the difference, the menu suggests, between Northern bluefin and mountain gorilla, Iberian lynx, or California Condor?  All of these animals are critically endangered.  Why is it acceptable to serve the former, when the presence of any of the latter three on a restaurant menu would no doubt solicit a restaurant critic’s verbal equivalent of a molotov cocktail through the front window?

Spreading the word
Spreading the word, one menu at a time

Over the past week, Greenpeace activists in both New York and Los Angeles have staged “dine-ins” at Nobu’s TriBeCa and West Hollywood locations, festooning the restaurant with mock menus, taking up table space, and demanding to speak to the manager about Nobu’s egregious disregard for our planet’s welfare.

The actions were conducted in a precise manner that was aimed at sending a message to upper management without undue disruption of other restaurant patrons.  Nobu servers were generously tipped by Greenpeace activists; after all, the  restaurant ownership’s head-in-the-sand mentality does not justify behavior that would send the waitresses and waiters, who have no decision-making power but who do have families and livelihoods, home without the tips on which they depend.  We are, after all, in a recession.

The point of all this is to take the issue to Nobu on the restaurant’s home turf.  In addition to being lambasted in the press, demonized in a documentary, and boycotted by celebrities, Nobu now must contend with activists that march directly into the restaurant to speak their minds.

The stubborn legend himself: Matsuhisa-san

The stubborn legend himself: Matsuhisa-san

Nobu is a trend-setting establishment that not only spans the globe, but wields incredible influence at the top of the sushi industry food chain. The innovative akumen and staggering talent of Nobu Matsuhisa are undeniable; he is undoubtedly capable of creating delectable dishes from both sustainable and unsustainable sources alike. Why, then, is he so resistant to use these gifts in an environmentally friendly manner?

Still, viewing this issue as “environmentalists v Nobu” is missing the point. Both groups want the same outcome: a healthy and productive ocean that can provide all the ecosystem services to foster sustainable business and healthy living. If Nobu were to drop bluefin and adopt a sustainable business model, it would be in the interest of the environmental community to promote the restaurant and encourage consumers to patronize it, rather than the unfortunate current situation.

Nobu needs to change their practices and begin to demonstrate corporate responsibility. Although environmentally rapacious and irresponsible businesses no longer have a place in this changing world, it is in everyone’s interest that sustainable and wisely managed establishments thrive and succeed.

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