Pass the bluefin sushi, shark fin soup and polar bear paw ashtray.
It’s all over except for the name change following the March 13-25 meeting of the U.N.’s Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) in Doha, Qatar that included a Japanese Embassy reception serving highly endangered Bluefin tuna. Its time to rebrand CITES the Corporate Inspired Termination of Existing Sealife. And hey Japan, it’s not called “bashing” when you go after a criminal.
But first, a little background. Despite our wars, homicide rates, illnesses, accidents and addictions, humans remain prolific breeders, having more than doubled our population in the last 45 years from 3 billion to almost 7 billion. We’re also highly effective predators. Having wiped out most large land animals and replaced them with domesticated meat animals like pigs and cattle, we’re now in the process of repeating this systemic carnage in the sea, wiping out marine wildlife such as cod, tuna and sharks faster than they can reproduce, even as we rapidly expand industrial-scale fish farming, recreating the agricultural revolution of 10,000 years ago (only in a far less sustainable manner — we’re feeding the farmed fish on wild fish).
Our atavistic urge to kill off potential competitors and turn wildlife into dead objects of wealth, status and adornment was reflected at the CITES meeting in Doha Qatar, an oil rich Arab state on the Persian Gulf though they prefer to call it the Arabian Gulf. Either way, it’s the deadest sea I’ve ever sailed on, with little more than oil rigs, jellyfish and sea snakes. (And perhaps a model for the world’s oceans in the not-too-distant future, thanks to the efforts of Japan’s delegation to CITES and the quiet cooperation they received from the world’s latest superpower, the People’s Republic of China).
Unlike Germany, Japan never seriously accepted responsibility for its crimes during World War Two and I’m sure after it has helped facilitate the decimation of the seas its government will find a way to again deny responsibility for this latest crime, continuing to brand any criticism of its corporate fleets and seafood companies, “Japan Bashing.”
Along with mercury-contaminated dolphins and whales, the Japanese consume over 75 percent of the world’s (also mercury laden) Bluefin tuna as sushi and sashimi. These large apex predator fish can sell for $10,000 each (one huge fish once fetched $175,000). Given that kind of market incentive it’s no surprise that the existing stocks have plummeted. The Eastern Atlantic and Mediterranean stock is nearing total collapse while the Western Atlantic stock, that includes U.S. Bluefin, has declined some 80 percent since the 1970s.
Still, the CITES meeting not only failed to enact a ban on trade in Bluefin tuna meat (very expensive Japanese sushi), but also rejected any protection for seven species of highly endangered sharks (used in shark fin soup, a gelatinous $100 a bowl status symbol in China). They also refused to protect rare pink and red corals (used for expensive jewelry) or even polar bear body parts (proof of the kill for “sports hunters”).
Following the vote on Bluefin, Japanese delegates began cheering along with some of their “friends.” As with the International Whaling Commission (IWC) meetings where Japan continues to push for a renewal of commercial whaling, many of these “friends” are in fact delegates from poor developing countries who are given financial aid by Japan in exchange for their votes. Japan also pays many poor coastal and island nations fees to fish tuna in their waters.
Unfortunately, few of these nations have their own Coast Guards to make sure that foreign fishing vessels obey the rules and don’t destroy the living resources that local fishing communities also depend on. U.S. Coast Guard Commandant Thad Allen recently told me he has grave concerns about the ability of emerging states to enforce fisheries laws within their 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zones. The two most critical examples he cited were Micronesian (Pacific) and Southwest African states that he said, “are really at the mercy of some of these foreign fleets.”
Among the most destructive of these fleets are the Japanese, Chinese, South Korean and Spanish, though the Italians do their fair share of illegal fishing in the Mediterranean, mainly targeting the large, sleek torpedo-shaped Bluefin.
Two major science studies on overfishing were released this decade. One reported 90 percent of the biggest pelagic (open ocean) fish — including sharks, tuna and billfish — have been eliminated by overfishing just since 1950. This study was largely based on catch records by Japan’s global longline fishing fleet. The other study suggests if present trends of industrial overfishing continue without change there will be no commercially viable wild fisheries left by mid-century. This is the study Japan seems determined to prove right. Unfortunately, the U.N. has now become its accomplice in this shortsighted rush to end our last great hunter-gatherer activity on our last great wilderness commons.
After that comes to pass, we’ll just have to start tightening our belts and hanging on tighter as twenty percent of our animal protein is eliminated from the global diet and the benefits and natural services provided by living marine ecosystems and their keystone species like shark and tuna begin to fade away. We’ll also have to start adjusting some of our cultural references. After all, there’re always more fish in the sea.
Until there’s not.