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Death knell

Sharks selling eels, eels slinging shark

The seafood show at the end of the world

It’s been a while.  Sorry for the silence.

There were any number of reasons for my delay in writing this.  March was a busy month for sure: the resurgence of competing priorities, such as working towards the successful end of Greenpeace’s Trader Joe’s campaign, certainly did their part in keeping me away from this blog.  The Boston Seafood Show and related pandemonium was no help either.  But to be honest, the main reason that I haven’t written is much simpler than that.

I’ve been sad.

Last meal

Last meal?

The Northern bluefin tuna was doomed to commercial extinction last month at the Convention on the International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES) meeting in Doha, Qatar.  In spite of all the work done by millions of caring people around the globe, the Japanese delegation managed to defeat our best efforts and corral enough votes to deny the bluefin even the most meager of protections.  Truly, the ocean’s most majestic fish has been sentenced to death for the twin crimes of being profitable and delicious.

I have spent the last few weeks seething over the unconscionable actions of the Japanese delegation.  CITES wasn’t even about coming together and discussing the real issues – frankly, it never got that far.  Riding in on a horse of flame and bluster (earlier that week, the Japanese government had stated that “even if the bluefin were awarded CITES protection, the Japanese would ignore it,”) a fifty-strong group of delegates from Tokyo stormed the meeting, bullying and coercing smaller nations into supporting their myopic, arrogant agenda.  And the cherry on top of this bloody sundae?  The Japanese delegation hosted a dinner during CITES to discuss this issue, at which they had the audacity to serve – you guessed it – bluefin tuna.

Am I the only one appalled by this unbridled hubris?

Ummm... a little help?

Ummm... a little help?

To worsen matters even more, a measure aimed at restricting the trade of corals was defeated, and of the eight species of shark that were tabled for potential protection, not a single one was given any succor whatsoever.  Oh, and I almost forgot – the polar bear was left out in the cold as well.

The 2010 CITES meeting was nothing short of a travesty.  The few countries that were finally able to get things together and support an environmental agenda fell apart in the face of a well-organized, well-funded Japanese delegation that treated these matters as nothing short of issues of national security.  In one fell swoop, the CITES parties have sacrificed ten key species – northern bluefin tuna, oceanic whitetip sharks, scalloped hammerhead sharks, great hammerhead sharks, smooth hammerhead sharks, porbeagle sharks, spiny dogfish, sandbar sharks, dusky sharks, and our noble polar bears – for the benefit of short-sighted economic gain.

Citizens of Earth – our leaders have failed us.  Miserably.  So what do we do?

No port in a storm

No port in a storm

Although it may not seem like it from the title of this post, I’m still not ready to take the bluefin’s death certificate to the local notary public.  We do have a slight glimmer of hope here in the USA.

The western population of the Northern bluefin tuna spawns in a small area in the Gulf of Mexico, much of which is located within US waters.  Even if we can’t yet regulate international commerce, we can still do our part to protect these bedeviled creatures while they are visiting our coastline.

Targeted bluefin fishing in the aforementioned spawning grounds has been forbidden (under ICCAT, believe it or not) since the 1980s.  Still, that doesn’t stop fishermen from targeting other species – mainly swordfish and yellowfin tuna – in those areas, and bluefin bycatch is a serious problem.  Hundreds of spawning animals are killed every year by longliners that are operating in these areas.

Not in our waters

Not in our waters

It is within our power to rectify this situation.  If the US government bans the use of longline fishing gear within the spawning grounds, it will drastically reduce the overall bluefin bycatch rate in the Gulf and allow more fish the opportunity to reproduce.  This is one way that we can bolster the population while we continue to push for the international management that the bluefin so sorely needs.

Please support the PEW environment group’s campaign to give the bluefin tuna at least a modicum of protection by banning longlines in the Gulf of Mexico bluefin spawning grounds.

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Update: Alaska Pollock (Imitation crab / Kanikama)

Feeding the world

Feeding the world

When Sustainable Sushi was being developed, the Alaska pollock fishery — the 2nd largest fishery in terms of total biomass in the entire world — seemed relatively healthy and stable.  At the very least, it provided a traceable and ostensibly well-managed seafood source that was superior to the random mash of imported whitefish that provides the ersatz fish protein underpinning our fish stick and surimi industries. In fact, the Alaska pollock fishery has been considered a “Best Choice” by the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program for years, and is an MSC-certified fishery.

Things seem to be taking a turn for the worse, however.  Recent developments in the fishery seem to suggest that all may not be well in pollock country.

Bottoming out

Bottoming out

For five years running, the stock has seen lower levels of recruitment (new fish in younger age classes) than historical trends would lead researchers to expect.  Overall stock levels have severely declined as well, taking the overall populations to levels only previously reached in the late 1970s — a time when the fishery was open to international fleets and was being heavily over-exploited.

Bycatch levels are also higher than one would like.  An increase in overall CPUE (Catch Per Unit of Effort — a measurement of the amount of resources and manpower needed to produce a given amount of fish) has led to increased mortality among co-habiting salmon.  Local sea birds and marine mammals are also being affected; strong links are being drawn between the pollock fishery and a downturn in northern fur seals and the endangered Stellar’s sea lion.

Trawl victims

Pollock trawls are impacting sensitive seabed habitats as well — new explorations in the Bering Sea have revealed rich areas of endemic corals.  Unfortunately, these areas are not yet protected from fishing, and the pollock fleet is freely operating in coral beds which should ideally be listed as no-take zones.

Most troubling, however, is the reaction on the part of the Northern Pacific Fishery Management Council (NPFMC), a federal body that is responsible for setting the yearly pollock quota.  Rather than use the aforementioned concerns as justification to pare down the fishery and reign in some of its more worrisome aspects, the NPFMC instead did the exact opposite and increased the allowed amount of king salmon bycatch to 60,000 fish.

This is poor management from an environmental standpoint.  The pollock fishery’s regulations are such that when the bycatch cap for salmon is reached, the fishery is immediately shut down for the year.  This increase in tolerable bycatch numbers reflects the rising CPUE within today’s pollock fishery, but rather than move to rebuild the fishery, it simply allows for greater and more damaging exploitation.

Can you spot the pollock?

Can you spot the pollock?

The pollock fishery is no longer what it once was.  It is clear that federal management cannot be depended upon to make wise and environmentally sound decisions in the face of the economic and industrial short-term interests that dominate the pollock industry.  Given the current situation, I have no choice but to urge readers to refrain from purchasing products that contain Alaska pollock.  In the sushi industry, this means the California roll and other items that include kanikama (imitation crab).

This is by no means an irreversible situation.  The Alaska pollock is an incredibly resilient and fecund fish that has the capability to bounce back.  Proper management can restore the fishery to its former productive glory, just as was done in the early 1980s.  The greater worry is for other impacted populations, primarily Stellar’s sea lions, Alaskan king salmon, coldwater corals, and northern fur seals.  If the pollock fishery is to continue, it must reinvent itself to be more sensitive to these co-habiting species.

I have no doubt that other environmental organizations have this issue on their radar, and that we will in the very near future begin to see more criticism of the Alaska pollock fishery from groups much larger and more established than Sustainable Sushi.

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