Tuna of all stripes seem deserving of a sizable break today.
Google bluefin, yellowfin, bigeye or albacore and nearly every reference links to some report or international agency, governmental body or scientific group insisting—loudly—that if we don’t seriously back off fishing tuna right away, many of its species will soon be gone.
Even the pirates of the environmental movement, Sea Shepherd—who has proven so successful in changing the way much of the world views whale hunting in the 21st century—has run into brick walls in its efforts to ride to the rescue of the last wild tuna.
In one of the big bluefin battlegrounds of the summer—the Mediterranean Sea, off the coast of Libya—Sea Shepherd’s goal of shutting down the fishery there has been stalled after its lead ship, the Steve Irwin, was caught up in a lawsuit filed by a Maltese tuna company and detained.
The Steve Irwin sailed into Libyan waters in June to try and stop anyone from taking bluefin. Dubbed “Operation Blue Rage,” the campaign figured that a country roiled in civil war wouldn’t be paying much attention to illegal fishing off its coastline. Which was true. One of the group’s tactics was literally ramming open-water pens holding bluefin and freeing them. Unfortunately, the Maltese-based company Fish and Fish Ltd. claimed it had rights to be fishing there last summer (2010), granted by Libya’s Rural Affairs Ministry, and is suing Sea Shepherd for damages, claiming a ramming of its pens caused 600 big fish, valued at more than $1 million, to swim into the wild. The ship is being held until a $1.4 million bond is posted.
The group’s website says it is “not particularly worried” about the suit and claims its actions were taken against an “illegal fishing operation.” But the threat that the boat may be held indefinitely is real.
“Let’s not forget that lawsuits can be filed for many reasons,” the site continues, “This may have happened for financial redress, or simply because Sea Shepherd has had serious success exposing the illegalities of operations profiting from the destruction of bluefin tuna and they want to interfere with their activities.” The EU has not been completely supportive of the group, with a spokesman announcing that “no one else” can carry out “inspections.”
Meanwhile, the Swiss-based Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN)—the top dog when it comes to attempting to protect endangered wildlife and plant life—has recently added five of eight tuna species to its Red List of Threatened Species. The timing of this announcement was linked to a meeting in La Jolla, California, of the world’s five regional fisheries management organizations, intergovernmental groups set up to try and make sure tuna fisheries remain sustainable.
The IUCN’s official predictions were expectedly grim: Southern bluefin stocks have crashed with little hope of recovery, gaining it a “critically endangered” listing. Atlantic bluefin is now officially “endangered.” With high-tech factory ships continuing to hammer bigeye (“vulnerable”) and yellowfin and albacore (“near threatened”) it would appear the only way to save tuna, according to the IUCN, is to close all fisheries until stocks are rebuilt.
But if you pay close attention to the dire pronouncements, which legitimately attempt to steer citizens and consumers in the right direction, it becomes clear that no amount of dire warnings and listings seem to be making much of a difference.
How much tuna do you guess is caught worldwide each year? Somewhere close to 4.5 million tons. The most prolific take is skipjack, which some call the rabbits of the sea, which accounts for 60 percent of the total tuna take and mostly goes into the tins found on supermarket shelves. The different varieties of bluefin—once so abundant along the coast of the U.S. that it was sold for a nickel a pound for cat food, but is now so highly prized by sushi and sashimi lovers that it can sell for $1,000 a kilo—makes up less than one percent of the global tuna haul.
One thing making all the listings and warnings frustrating is the inability of fishermen around the globe to agree to leave it be. In Canada, for example, top wildlife advisers (the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada) say bluefin on both Atlantic and Pacific coasts should be listed as endangered. But at the same time the country’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans proclaims its bluefin fishery is the best managed in the world and should be left alone. (Last year 5,000 tons of bluefin were caught in Canadian waters). Like so many environmental debates, it’s often hard to know which statistic or professional opinion to trust.
The debates may rage, but Sea Shepherd remains fearless in its rescue mission. While the bluefin-saving ship is held at dock in Lybia, the group has recently dispatched another one of its ships, the Brigitte Bardot, to the Faroe Islands (Operation Ferocious Isles) to protect and draw attention to the risks facing pilot whales.
(For the rest of my dispatches, go to takepart.com