- Carl Safina
Pattern recognition: An international tuna commission that Japan belongs to sets catch levels, then Japan is found guilty of systematic, planned overfishing. An international commission that Japan belongs to bans commercial whale hunting, but Japan continues killing whales for commercial sale, while widening its kill to more species in more regions of the world seas. During four-decade-plus membership on the Atlantic tuna commission (ICCAT), Japan has consistently demanded catches higher than the commission scientists recommend.
Get the picture?
A panel hired by the commission to review itself actually said that the commission’s management, particularly of bluefin tuna,
“…is widely regarded as an international disgrace and the international community which has entrusted the management of this iconic species to ICCAT deserve better performance from ICCAT than it has received to date.”
There is plenty of blame to go around. The U.S. has be a terrible player, too, because its delegation to the commission is always infested with fishing industry lobbyists and even its science team is infected by industry consultants.
With Atlantic bluefin populations now at fractions of former abundance and their numbers plummeting, the United Nations did its own review. The U. N. determined that the tuna commission had so failed that the bluefin qualifies for a trade ban under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species.
A trade ban would knock the wind out of the fishing pressure and the prices paid, because about 80 percent of Atlantic bluefins go to—guess where—Japan. That’s because—guess what—sushi-crazed Japanese buyers pay prices sometimes exceeding $150,000 for a single fish. That’s wholesale. One fish.
Bluefin tuna are now so scarce that without Japanese pay-outs, most of the fishing would be a money-loser. So a trade ban would likely arrest the bluefin’s tailspin and might even calm the fishing fervor enough to allow an overhaul of the tuna commission and establishment of more scientific, less corrupted management.
Though there’s plenty of blame to go around in making the Atlantic tuna commission into an “international disgrace,” Japan has created for itself a special distinction: Japan is the only country that has said to the world, ‘screw you all.’
Japan says that if a trade ban is finally enacted—it will simply ignore it. That means that Japan is announcing its creation of a massive black market for bluefin.
Enacting a trade ban is a torturous political procedure. I tried to get one established in the early 1990s—when the writing was already on the wall for bluefin tuna. Japan crushed that effort by threatening lots of poor countries with loss of economic aid if they voted for it. (That debacle is detailed in my book, Song for the Blue Ocean.)
With the fishing situation so much worse now, the trade ban proposal is gaining much more momentum. The vote will come in March when about 150 countries convene in Qatar to vote on an array of wildlife trade proposals.
Japan’s announcement that it will ignore the vote of a global organization it belongs to is like running a pirate flag up the mast.
In an increasingly crowded world where shared management is the future’s only hope, Japan consistently harms efforts to struggle toward agreement. When it comes to the ocean, Japan is a truly a piratical nation. What Somalia is to oil tankers, Japan is to tuna and whales.
With characteristic shamelessness, Japan’s top fisheries negotiator said his country “would have no choice” but to ignore a ban. “It’s a matter of principle,” he said.