Quarter-of-a-million dollars for a fish ... what's the catch?Home » Blog » Hazel Murray » Quarter-of-a-million dollars for a fish ... what's the catch?
Bluefin tuna stocks in the Atlantic and Pacific are close to extinction. The US and Europe have recently come out in support of moves for an international trading ban. Meanwhile, New Zealand plans to increase our bluefin tuna catch. Hazel Murray looks at why attempts to reduce quotas in previous years have been in vain—and why considerable difficulties remain.
In January this year, a single Atlantic bluefin tuna sold for a staggering ¥16.3 million (around $255,000) at Tsukiji Market in Tokyo. Within hours, it was served as bluefin sashimi in Japanese and Hong Kong restaurants. Yesterday at Tsukiji, the world’s largest wholesale fish market, Japanese brokers protested against a move to ban the trade in the prized species.
The world's eyes are on the Atlantic bluefin, after Monaco proposed that the species be listed under Appendix 1 of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). A decision is set to be made at a conference this weekend in Doha, Qatar.
The US and several European governments are supporting the move, which would not see a ban in fishing of the species but rather its international trade. That would prevent European vessels from selling Atlantic bluefin to Japan, which purchases 80 percent of global Atlantic and Pacific bluefin catches.
Sales of Atlantic bluefin have been on the rise since the 1970s, and they're now in the top three most expensive fish on the planet. Bluefin tuna is revered as a delicacy in Japan, and although one Tsukiji market representative told the Guardian that the global economic climate has forced people to shy away from purchasing expensive fish such as bluefin, statistics suggest otherwise.
Bluefin tuna are one of the world's largest fish; they can reach around 4m in length and weigh over 250kg. These long-distance swimmers cross vast oceans during migrations, and given half a chance they can live up to 30 years—though it's unlikely to find such a specimen these days.
- WWF statistics show that stocks in the east and west Atlantic have depleted by 72% and 82% respectively since 1978.
- Despite advice from independent bodies, the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) continues to set quotas that exceed sustainable levels, which has led critics to dub the organisation the ‘International Conspiracy to Catch All Tunas’.
- The Guardian reported a particularly alarming claim that from an estimated population of 3.75 million fish, 1 million were caught last year.
These worrying statistics have led some experts to predict that at current catch levels the Atlantic bluefin will be extinct within 12 years. The ecological repercussions of the loss of a large fish at the top of the ocean food chain are unknown and expected to be serious. Squid and sardine populations are likely to be severely affected.
How did it come to this?
- Despite the fish being classified as critically endangered on the IUCN Red List, and there being no shortage of depressing research about fish numbers, quotas have continued to exceed sustainable levels.
- Bodies such as ICCAT have been criticised for acting in the interest of the fishing industry rather than the fish.
- Illegal catches are estimated to be as high as 30,000 tonnes per year, which reflects a lack of control as well as the high demand for fish in this US$7.2 billion dollar industry.
What does it mean for New Zealand?
Restricting trade to domestic markets will by no means solve the problem, as Japanese fleets will be able to increase their catches to make up for the loss of trade from European vessels. Some critics argue that a trade ban is too soft, and a moratorium on fishing of all bluefin is needed if we are to save this king of the oceans.
One of the most worrying knock-on effects of the ban, however, may be the increased focus on other tuna species—including the Southern bluefin tuna. And that’s where we come in.
The Southern bluefin is currently listed as critically endangered on the IUCN Red List. New Zealand takes part in commercial fishing of the Southern bluefin, although Australia and Japan dominate the catches. Stocks of Southern blufin are at critical levels, and the deaths of seabirds and non-tuna bycatch are also a concern (see Forest & Bird's website).
After decisions by the Commission for the Conservation of Southern Bluefin Tuna (CCSBT), the body that manages the species at the regional level, our Ministry of Fisheries (Mfish) has proposed to increase our total allowable commercial catch (TACC) by 112 tonnes for the coming year.
This decision is said to reflect an “overall reduction in the global TACC for southern bluefin tuna [by 20 percent], but an increased portion of that global TACC for New Zealand to reflect a longstanding agreement.”
Greenpeace, among others, is dismayed at this proposal:
The bluefin tuna fishery is collapsing right before our eyes. The species is listed as critically endangered yet the NZ Ministery of Fisheries is not only allowing the fishery to continue, but proposing to increase the quota!
Bluefin populations are being attacked from every angle, and New Zealand's catch increase seems to undermine both our reputation for sustainable fisheries, and international efforts to allow bluefin to survive.
It will be difficult to ensure any global trade ban on Atlantic bluefin has a tangible effect on fish stocks. If the last few decades are anything to go by, bans or quota restrictions may make very little difference.
The Japanese, who dominate the purchasing market, are unwilling to support any reduction in catches—and if the country's attitude to whaling shows anything, they are likely to ignore any imposed bans. As one broker told the Guardian, telling the Japanese to stop eating tuna “is like telling the US to stop eating beef”. Maybe it is—but the humble cow is not about to become extinct.
That begs the question, can you farm bluefin tuna? Among one of Time magazine's 50 best inventions of 2009 was tank-bred tuna, developed by an Australian company and Kinki Univeristy. While aquaculture comes with its own serious problems, and by no means lets commercial fishing off the hook, it may provide a way to salvage global tuna populations before it’s too late.
What can you do?
- Submissions have now closed regarding the proposed increase by MFish, but you can still write to Acting Minister David Carter at firstname.lastname@example.org to voice your concerns about the increased quota.
- Make sure you see The End of the Line, a new documentary being described as the Inconvenient Truth for oceans.
- Follow the Best Fish Guide and be aware of what you are eating.