Wednesday, March 17, 2010
Today at work I had a discussion with a co-worker about bluefin tuna. This was especially interesting because this is a hot issue in Japan. Friction has been created from the differing sides of the issue taken by Japan and China in opposition to many western nations, including the U.S. My co-worker asked me if I ate maguro sushi, which is tuna. I could easily answer no because I don’t eat any type of animal, but the brief discussion that ensued would be typical even if I had answered yes.
He asked why the U.S. would put a ban on bluefin tuna. I told him that scientists that have monitored bluefin tuna populations for decades have seen precipitous decline and are recommending a ban on Bluefin. He said that the U.S. didn’t eat much tuna and so shouldn’t have a say in the tuna population’s control. I told him that despite that the U.S. doesn’t eat a lot of tuna that doesn’t change that the population is going extinct. We went around in circles like this for a few minutes before he was called away, but it was an interesting conversation. Just about everyone I have talked to in Japan holds much of the same opinion: Don’t mess with my maguro sushi.
While I am sympathetic, maguro is a really popular and traditional food here; I don’t understand why Japan would fight so hard to oppose the ban. I started to think, is it true that the Bluefin population facing collapse? What does this ban entail? Perhaps there was something that I was missing because surely any reasonable adult would be willing to give up something in the short term in order to ensure having it available in the long term. Surely.
So the first question I asked myself was; what exactly is tuna? I had better define it before I figure out if it is endangered and worth protecting. I think most of us know that it is a very large fish that inhabits the oceans of the world. Beyond that most people are pressed for details other than it comes in a handy little can in most grocery stores. Tuna is found all over the world, but it is misleading to think that means they are plentiful because there are lots of different kinds of tuna like Yellowfin tuna, Albacore, Bigeye, Black fin, Skipjack, etc. These are all slight variations on “Tuna” and they all inhabit different regions of the oceans based on their bodies, diets, etc. and in turn inhabit unique niches in their eco-systems. Hence the loss of these unique tuna means a drastic and possibly unknown change in the eco-system. So, Bluefin tuna, the one in question where does it come from and what is it like? There are, according to Wikipedia, three groups of Bluefin. They reside in the North Atlantic (and Mediterranean), Southern Atlantic, and Pacific.
So with this information came my second big question; are these three populations all endangered and would they all be included in the ban? Yes and yes. Suffice it to say that all three stocks have suffered a decline in population of 75% or more since the early 1960’s and all are considered in danger of collapse.
So then I asked my next question; why are they endangered? It turns out that Bluefin is hugely sought after, especially in Japan which consumes about 80% of the harvested stock each year. In fact the record for the highest price paid for a single Bluefin tuna is here in Japan. On the average they can sell for the equivalent of 10,000 dollars, but this one in particular sold for over 175,000 dollars. One fish, dead, to be eaten, for over 175,000 dollars. To put that in perspective, Bluefin tuna are quite large. They can exceed 1000lbs in weight, though I think this one was a bit less than that, around 600lbs. Did that put it in prospective or are you still saying “That’s expensive!” like I am?
So that led me to my next huge important question; could the Bluefin tuna reasonably be replaced by another tuna stock, now to save the Bluefin population from collapse or in the future if it does collapse? The answer is yes. Although there are other populations of tuna that are listed as endangered such as Pacific Bigeye and Indian Ocean Yellowfin, there are still other populations that are not endangered. Skipjack, which supplies 60% of the worlds consumed tuna, is not endangered.
So finally this led me to my final and perhaps most important question surrounding this ban on Bluefin tuna; what will the ban do? It appears that the ban will NOT stop the fishing of Bluefin tuna. What it will do is stop the International trade of Bluefin tuna, which is where Japan gets a kink in the neck. Most of the Bluefin that Japan eats comes from somewhere else and hence if an international ban is set their supply will be drastically cut.
For now that ban is being discussed, now, at the CITES meeting in Qatar where 175 member nations will discuss this ban among other things. It needs a ¾ vote to carry and for now it seems that it might do so. The U.S. and the EU (largely) are behind the ban and Japan and China are opposed. Soon enough we will see what happens. Now, more than before, I am left thinking, “What exactly is Japan thinking by blocking the ban?”