Tuna is incredibly and understandably popular. It is the basis of so many yummy and nutritious foods all over the world, ranging, for example in the United States, from tuna salad sandwiches to upscale tuna sushi. Be it from a can or a slab at the sushi counter, tuna has a global appeal, and the demand is only growing. Although new trends in fishing and aquaculture allow more people to enjoy tuna, they can also harm the sustainability of tuna in the long run. Tuna overfishing, an increasingly dire crisis, both negatively impacts tuna itself as well as other, non-target, species. The interconnected nature of marine ecosystems and food chains compounds the growing global fishing crisis, with even more dangerous implications. In fact, unsustainable overfishing threatens both the future of tuna as well as oceanic ecosystems at large.
Unsustainable fishing methods for tuna impact wide areas of environmental and economic interest, affecting restaurant owners, supermarkets, environmentalists, conservation biologists, fishing corporations, and fishmongers alike. Tuna is one of the most dangerously overfished aquatic species. Newswire reported in 2007 that “all 23 commercially exploited tuna stocks are heavily fished […] Three are considered Critically Endangered, three as Endangered, and three as Vulnerable to Extinction.” Many restaurant- and supermarket-goers might not immediately know they are consuming tuna to the brink of extinction. However, these statistics reveal only a glimpse into the dangers of the tuna industry.
The global tuna industry has poor practices across many fronts. A clear starting point is the industrial purse-seine fishing method and its controversy in connection to dolphins. “Dolphin-safe” tuna was the first eco-label applied to fishing products. Between Southern California and Chile, dolphin herds swim over schools of yellowfin tuna, and fishermen commonly encircle the dolphin herds to track the tuna below. In the forty year period between 1959 and 1999, at least six million dolphins drowned in nets. This staggering number is due in large part to the purse-seine method of fishing, which draws an extremely large net from the water’s surface all the way to the ocean floor with no openings at the top or bottom. These nets are popular with fishermen because fish have a much harder time escaping. Purse-seine fishing is dangerous to dolphins along the Pacific Coast in North and South America they do not discriminate between valuable yellowfin tuna and the dolphins that swim atop them. However, even though the plight of dolphins effectively began the environmental backlash against the tuna industry, they are but a single example of unintended harm done to marine life by tuna fishing.
Dolphins in this scenario are considered bycatch, “that part of the catch which is not target[ed], but perhaps most meaningfully as that part of the catch which is discarded dead.” Bycatch is commonly associated with the purse-seine fishing method, and fishermen can find a surprising diversity of sea creatures in their purse-seine bycatch. When ships toss these large nets into schools of tuna, they usually also catch young, underdeveloped tuna and species, all of which go to waste. It is astounding how often tuna caught in purse-seine nets are too young to sell. Perhaps over twenty percent of all tuna caught in purse-seine nets in the Pacific were discarded, and most of these discards were undersized instead of in poor condition. This is incredibly harmful to the future of tuna. Tunas live long lifespans and mature for decades before reproducing. Catching entire comprehensive swathes of the population, including the young, only discourages any hope of sustainability.
Bycatch also harms other marine species. Purse-seine methods have also “captured and killed many non-target species including seabirds, sea turtles, marine mammals, sharks and other fish.” Commercial fishing methods, including those aside from purse-seine nets, are unsustainable not only to tuna directly, but also many other oceanic species, sometimes with severe consequences. “Within the Indian Ocean, for example, the survival of the critically endangered Amsterdam Albatross (Diomedea amsterdamensis) is threatened by the bycatch of just a handful of individuals each year in tuna longline fisheries.” Longline fishing is commonly regarded as being safer than purse-seine fishing, because it produces less bycatch. However, even this less harmful technique is perilously unsafe for a beautiful bird, which demonstrates the threatening implications of tuna fishing for wildlife diversity. Shockingly, even if these nets and lines were not catching these other species, the absence of tuna would still impact marine life, because tuna’s role as a top predator impacts the rest of the food chain.
The possible extinction of top predators like tuna has unknown longer-term consequences and is especially concerning for environmentalists. When top predators disappear, often populations below them grow and shrink at abnormal rates, until entire sections of the food chain vanish. In the end, much of the food chain will disappear altogether, leaving only species at the lowest levels to grow unchecked. Since this ripple effect of extinction affects not only tuna, but also all marine species in its food chain, tuna overfishing should be of great concern to conservationists and fishing corporations alike.
Indeed, both have been working on these issues for a long time, if not always in tandem. More accurately, the two have been at odds in many aspects since the beginning, including in their responses to tuna-related regulations. For example, the United States’ Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972, the monumental first tuna fishing regulation, included conflicting language that, for twenty-five years, left environmentalists working toward abolishing the purse-seine method and the tuna industry working to regulate the same purse-seine method. In 1995, the international Panama Decision also received vastly different feedback from the opposing sides. It was the result of years of successful environmental advocacy, but, after its completion, it garnered only the scorn of Sierra Club, Humane Society of America, ASPCA, and over seventy other environmental organizations. They saw the Panama Decision as a slap in the face from corporate interests, who, they argued, lobbied complicated enforcement mechanisms into the agreement to prioritize free trade over dolphin preservation. Environmentalists face these repeated disappointments, because they are playing a game on a very big chessboard, and every piece represents powerful interests. Big tuna corporations have such a powerful international presence, because they have become global industries, often with the tacit or even direct support of their host countries.
For example, even though the United States is still a dominant fishing country, most big companies no longer operate within the United States. In 1988, Ralston Purina sold its “Chicken of the Sea” to the Indonesian Mantrust, and, in 1989, Pillsbury sold its “Bumble Bee” to the Thai Unicord. Bumble Bee Foods has since made changed owners numerous times and is currently owned by Lion Capital, a British private equity firm. Today, Heinz’s “Star Kist” is the only American “big tuna” brand. This means that tuna corporations are all regulated differently, depending on how individual countries want to and can conduct their own business. Often times, countries are only inclined to support their local industustries, and there is little environmentalists can do about it.
Bumble Bee is a prime example of how tuna corporations can tip the scales in their favor. It was a founding member of the Congressional Oceans Caucus Foundation in the United States Congress. While at first glance it might seem a step toward corporate accountability, it is only another way of exerting their own interests. While lobbying for tuna fishing regulations in 2014, Michael Kraft, Bumble Bee’s Vice President of Sustainability, assured congressmembers that the company was committed to protecting tuna stocks. He stressed that Bumble Bee cared about tuna sustainability, because it was the future of the company. He did, however, present strong views against what he called illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing, emphasizing that these practices were irreparably harmful to American tuna interests abroad. This testimony easily shows the nefarious goals hiding behind a thin veneer of environmental concern. Bumble Bee is lobbying not for the protection of tuna, but for monopolized access to tuna stocks. The corporation does care about its ability to fish tuna well into the future, but it does not intend to share it, and it only plans to coordinate tuna conservation in accordance with its business models. The Vice President of Sustainability clearly shows that Bumble Bee cares about the sustainability of its company, not of tuna or of anyone else who makes a living from tuna.
Further negligence at the country level only complicates this issue. Distant water fishing nations carry particular responsibility. They are nations whose fishing fleets operate in the Exclusive Economic Zones of other countries, often flying dishonest flags so they can catch more. They include powerful Pacific countries, notably the United States, China, Japan, and Taiwan. These countries can get away with this, because “on the high seas, the lack of clear ownership rights and responsibility for resources exacerbates the risk of overexploitation.” The United States in particular has failed to live up to its reputation as a global leader in this aspect, and it is often times no better than its Asian counterparts. For example, the Inter-American-Tropical-Tuna-Commission has long tried to impose country fishing quotas, which the United States has successfully opposed, arguing that tuna is migratory fish. By rejecting responsibility, the United States sets a dangerous example for its peers. This disregard continued in August 2017 when “U.S. federal government denied a petition to list Pacific bluefin tuna as an endangered species.” This runs contrary to any perception that only Asian countries contribute to the problem. That said, Asian distant waters fishing nations have indeed earned their poor reputations. “Based on arrests in the last five years, the majority of fishing vessels caught fishing illegally in the region are from China, Taiwan, Indonesia and Korea [which] continue to oppose the stringent monitoring, control and surveillance measures required to effectively halt illegal fishing” This is disheartening to environmentalists, who, even if they could clean house in the United States, would still be left facing a seemingly insurmountable global mess. These are among the vessels Bumble Bee does not want fishing in Pacific waters, and they are not just harmful to Bumble Bee.
More importantly, they are harmful to small fishermen, especially those from Pacific Island Countries, who depend on the sea for their livelihoods. “For Pacific Islands, the income from the tuna catch in 2001 was equivalent to 11 percent of their collective gross domestic product,” and, as a result, Pacific Island Countries share a special connection with the sea. In fact, the Pacific Island Countries are strongly committed to sustainable fishing and have been called “proud custodians of the ocean,” consistently leading the charge in legislating marine conservation solutions to diverse issues such as driftnet fishing, fisheries management, and nuclear testing. However, even though they were “initially granted […] rights to regulate tuna resources for environmental sustainability and domestic economic gains – rights guaranteed by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea,” that is no longer the case. International interventions have “eroded Pacific island country resource sovereignty and their ability to shape tuna production towards their policy objectives. […] Instead, distant water fishing nations [such as] Japan, Taiwan and the United States exert pressure on management structures, influencing fisheries regulation towards terms most favorable to their own fleets” In a complicated web of inter-governmental and non-governmental interactions, smaller actors like Pacific Island Countries cannot reply on their more powerful peers to consider their needs and protect them from corporate interests. “As resources become increasingly scarce[…], all actors […] scramble to secure their supply of tuna,” and industry inevitably comes out on top, instead of the local economies that depend on tuna and other species implicated by tuna exploitation. Profit invariably wins over subsistence and conservation.
As a result, environmentalists must work hard and innovate to combat big tuna and protect the interests of small countries. International laws, regional commissions, and better technology might all contribute small steps towards a solution, but the tuna industry is unlikely to change without significant pressure, and for good reason. “Tuna, the industry, and the regulations that govern them are global,” and the institutional failures of individual countries contribute to this global overexploitation and underdevelopment, even if it is mostly directly done at the hands of corporations. Therefore, environmentalists from powerful countries, who have unfortunately a bigger voice than entire smaller countries, have a particularly important role to play. They must make coalition bonds, set good examples, and challenge the tuna industry.
Some promising examples, such as American Tuna, are already in the works. “Comprised of six fishing families who fish off the North Pacific coast, American Tuna […] created five years ago as a grassroots effort to educate U.S. consumers […] is a member of the American Albacore Fishing Association-the first fishery in the world to be certified sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council for its sustainable fishing methods.” American Tuna, a for-profit, activist, multi-family business model, is more likely than a government or intergovernmental agency to execute concrete, efficient goals. There are several uplifting implications of their work. Since it has built its business only in the American Northwest, it will not follow corporations with distant water fishing fleets to exploit Pacific Island Countries. Although small, American Tuna offers a sustainable alternative for supermarkets and consumers, and as it grows, with all the privileges of being a company in the United States, it creates a natural comparison to the corporate industry. American Tuna is just one example of environmental activists innovating to protect tuna without the bureaucratic bloat of international governments and agencies. A bigger example is “A new consortium known as the International Seafood Sustainability Foundation (ISSF) [which] is bringing together tuna processors, scientists and environmental non-governmental organizations […] to protect tuna stocks and reduce their impacts on non-target species such as dolphins, turtles, sharks and seabirds.” This environmental option fights corporate interests more directly, by bringing credible experts together to advocates on a global scale to impactful work. Fighting corporations remains at the center of their work, and they do so, still by lobbying governments and commissions, but also by educating the consumers who decide between tuna canned by Bumble Bee and by American Tuna. This brings effective economic pressure on the industry to make changes to save tuna.
These environmental efforts work in tandem to produce a bigger change. They are both small steps, especially in the daunting face of corporate interest, but they represent the hard won milestones of the environmental lobby. Only when environmentalists step to the plate with coordinated innovation and persistence will tuna, its surrounding ecosystem, and the countries that rely on it all, survive.
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