One more year for the Bluefin tuna
- Published: 10 June 2011
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11 June 2011
In the last decade we have seen the rapid decline of many of the largest fish in the ocean due to industrial fishing practices.
Eight years ago it was announced that only 10% of large ocean fish were left, and despite international conservation efforts, overfishing has become even more rampant since then. Due to a lucrative market for their meat, and the involvement of organised crime networks, the majestic Bluefin tuna, one of the giants of fish world, is said to be facing near extinction within the year.
Bluefin tuna are spectacular; at an average of 450kg (adult), a length of up to 3 metres, and holding the title of one of the apex predators of the ocean, they are one of the earth's most striking creatures.
Humans have been eating Bluefin tuna for centuries, but it is only very recently that they have come under threat of extinction. The two main species of Bluefin – the Northern (Atlantic) and Southern Bluefin – are both listed as critically endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
Industrial fishing practices such as deep sea trawling and long-lining are resulting in frightening rates of over-fishing, as well as the enormous increase of 'by-catch', the fishing equivalent of collateral damage.
In addition to industrial practices, a lucrative market for Bluefin tuna meat for sushi and sashimi, and the involvement of organised crime networks, are all resulting in Bluefin fishing quotas actually increasing despite their critically endangered listing.
The ocean is abundant and generally unpoliced, which results in a fertile environment for organised crime networks to make incredible amounts of money. The 2006 documentary Sharkwater, about the illegal shark finning trade, exposed a Taiwanese mafia network working in Costa Rica (where sharks are meant to be protected) making billions from illegal poaching and bribing government officials. The Northern Bluefin tuna, which starts its migration in the Mediterranean, seems to have attracted the attention of the Italian mafia.
In 2006 at a meeting of the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) a delegate from the World Wildlife Fund arrived at her conference table to a present of white lilies and chrysanthemums, a widely recognised death threat from the mafia.
The meeting was set to revise the Bluefin fishing quotas in the face of their populations being close to collapse, with both scientists and environmentalists campaigning for an immediate halt to their capture. Since then quotas have only increased, a testament to the pressure being applied by those that are making money out of the Bluefin industry.
The Bluefin is set to be commercially extinct by 2012. Yes, that's less than one year away. It turns out that many of the big companies (such as Mitsubishi) that have been making lots of money out of Bluefin meat have been very aware of the fish's decline, and instead of taking measures to maintain the wild population, have been stockpiling the meat so that they can make increasing amounts of money out of an increasingly rare product. It's called the economics of extinction.
Speaking out against the plunder of the Bluefin tuna is obviously falling on deaf ears; money nearly always speaks louder.
One of the few groups that is doing a bit more than just speaking out is the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society. In what is being called Operation Blue Rage, Sea Shepherd have recently sent two of their ships, the Steve Irwin and Brigitte Bardot, into the Mediterranean to intervene in illegal Bluefin tuna fishing.
With the war in Libya, the ocean off the Libyan coast is now a prime target for illegal Bluefin tuna fishing vessels. The EU has made it clear they will not be involved in any illegal fishing intervention tactics in a war zone, so it seems the Sea Shepherd boats will be the only vessels policing the area.
“Every fishing boat in this area is a target for intervention and we have no need to worry about Libyan planes or naval vessels. We will keep NATO forces aware of our activities and we will report our operations to the appropriate European Union officials. We can’t allow the poachers to profit from the war by taking these magnificent endangered fish,” said Captain MacLean, on board the Steve Irwin.
Before even arriving in the Mediterranean the operation has already proven to be fraught with danger. On its way from Australia towards the Suez Canal, the Steve Irwin was tailed by Somali pirates while passing through the Gulf of Aden.
The ship's new paint job as a Dutch warship, and being hailed as such by a passing U.S. Blackhawk helicopter, most likely contributed to the pirates eventually backing off. But the dangers posed by aggressive illegal fishing boats off the coast of Libya could be equally, if not more, frightening.
“I am constantly asked if this is a dangerous operation,” commented Captain Paul Watson, founder of Sea Shepherd. “Of course it’s a dangerous mission, that’s why were the only group going into this warzone...Our mission is simple...Any tuna fishing vessel we find off the Libyan coast will be operating illegally. We will cut their nets, free the fish, and document and report their operations to ICCAT and the European Union.”
We are set to see many of earth's creatures disappear in our life times, due to a wide range of human-influenced changes to crucial ecosystems that sustain life as we know it. It is not out of our reach to make a difference though.
From supporting those that take a front-line stand, to choosing not to support industries that kill animals and destroy their habitat, we can all contribute to trying to allow these amazing creatures like the Bluefin tuna to live free and wild lives.
Lilia Letsch is associate editor at The Scavenger. Lilia works for Sea Shepherd in Australia but has not written this article in an official capacity for the organisation.