Bluefin tuna loses out simply because scarce fish make a profit

Posted by  George Monbiot  Friday 19 March 2010 10.12 GMT 

Idiots. Morons. Blockheads. Numbskulls. Nothing quite captures the
mind-withering stupidity of what has just happened in Doha. Swayed by
Japan and a number of other countries, some of them doubtless bought off
in traditional fashion, the members of the Convention on International
Trade in Endangered Species (Cites) have decided not to protect the
Atlantic bluefin tuna.

Those who opposed suspending trade in the species argued that the
temporary ban proposed by Monaco would devastate their fishing
industries. There is some truth in this: for the years in which bluefin
stocks would have been allowed to recover, the export ban would have put
people out of work and reduced the output of their industry. But the
absence of a ban ensures that, after one or two more seasons of fishing
at current levels, all the jobs and the entire industry are finished
forever, along with the magnificent species that supported them. The
insistence that the fishing can continue without consequences betrays
Olympic-class denial, a flat refusal to look reality in the face.

One of the commenters on a Guardian thread this week, who lives in Japan
and uses the tag Kimpatsu, related his experiences of trying to discuss
these issues.

    "the Japanese policy towards both Bluefin tuna and whales has two
engines of motivation. The first is the fact that the average Japanese
is in denial about the imminent extinction of these creatures; the
thought runs that as they have always eaten these animals (and many
Japanese mistakenly think that the whale is a fish) since time
immemorial, they will be able to continue doing so indefinitely into the
future. When pressed on the subject of hunting to extinction, they grow
aggressive. (I know from personal experience.) The second reason is the
low-grade paranoia that informs all Japanese interaction with the
outside world; the notion of Nihon tataki (Japan-bashing) is
omnipresent. If you protest against whaling or tuna fishing, you're a
cultural imperialist. If you point out that some Japanese are members of
Greenpeace or oppose whaling (my GP is one), then "you don't understand
Japanese mind so much". Remember: all your actions against whaling and
overfishing are driven by a deep-seated, irrational hatred of Japan.
Consequently, when you push, they push back."

I have no idea how representative this is, but the attitudes Kimpatsu
describes were powerfully represented in The Cove, the film about the
secret dolphin slaughter in Japan which won the 2010 Oscar for best
documentary. The massacre it exposed is pointless, counter-productive
and profoundly damaging to Japan's international image, but it was
fiercely defended by what seemed to be the entire political
establishment. Denial is evident everywhere on earth, but in the
Japanese fishing and whaling industries it seems to have been raised to
an art-form.

But it would be wrong to blame only Japan for this. In fact the only
nations which unequivocally stood up for a ban were Monaco, the United
Kingdom, the Netherlands, the United States, Norway and Kenya. It's good
to have the UK and US on board, especially after eight years of
sabotaging international treaties by the Bush administration, but the
feeble or hostile response of many other countries was deeply
depressing. The EU, some of whose members are major tuna exporters to
Japan, supported a ban, but only if it was delayed until May 2011, by
which time tuna stocks might pass the point of no return. Several
nations simply rebuffed what the fisheries scientists say and insisted
that they could carry on as usual without ill-effect. It's Easter Island
all over again.

This proposal was brought before the meeting in Doha for just one
reason: the nations charged with managing the tuna fishery have flunked
it. The International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas
(Iccat), which is supposed to discharge this task, is in urgent need of
a new name: it should be called the the International Commission for the
Cleansing of Atlantic Tunas. It has repeatedly set catch limits way
above what its own scientists have proposed, and turned a blind eye to
illegal bluefin catches which probably outweigh the legal take.

Now Japan, as if to show that it really doesn't care what happens to the
industry it claims to support, has said that it should be Iccat, not
Cites, which continues to decide how many tuna are caught. It's like
putting Cruella de Ville in charge of the Battersea Dog's Home.

Behind all this lurks a simple calculation. The businessmen currently
fishing the Atlantic bluefin to extinction know that while any members
of the species survive there is no cut-off point for the profits they
make. The scarcer tuna become, the higher the price each carcass
fetches. Once the fish have been exterminated, the investors can just
shift their vast profits into another industry. It makes perfect
economic sense. The shocker is that the nations which are supposed to
regulate these crooks have let them get away with it. In doing so, they
are reducing the king of fish to an expendable asset in a bent
accountant's ledger.

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