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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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A ray of light

Are we still talking about this?

Are we still talking about this?

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.

Circle of power

Circle of power.. kind of

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.

Doha: the bluefin's last stand?

Doha: the bluefin's last stand?

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.

Frozen assets

Frozen assets

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.

What are you waiting for?

What are you waiting for?

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.

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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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