Tuna on Trial: The Dark Side of the Bluefin Tuna Market

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All along the northern coast of Sicily there is evidence of organized crime: empty tonnaros, or tuna canneries, that went out of business last century when the massive blue fin tunas they hauled from the Mediterranean for generations finally disappeared. Sicily’s ghostly tonnaros may not have much to do with the Corleones or the Sopranos, but they do stand testament to another global system of corruption: the unchecked hunt of the bluefin tuna into localized extinction.

That transgression is back in the spotlight this week, after the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) released “Looting the Seas,”  the fruits of an eight-month investigation into the international black market of the East Atlantic bluefin tuna trade.

The number of breeding tuna in the eastern Atlantic has plunged over 74% since the late 1950s, with the steepest drop occurring in the past 10 years. At current fishing rates, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) estimates that Atlantic bluefin that spawn in the Mediterranean could disappear from those waters as early as 2012.  (Here’s a video I shot about the tuna trade in the Philippines last year.)

Despite that, the organization tasked with its management — International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) – has done little to reign in the fishing nations cashing in on this big business. The ICIJ report estimates the black market for Eastern bluefin during the peak years of 1998 to 2007 – which includes myriad misdeeds up the supply chain including quota violation, underreporting of catches, use of banned equipment to find schools of fish, catching juvenile fish and government misreporting of catches – is worth about $4 billion. During that time, more than one in three Eastern bluefin was caught illegally. That’s a lot of hot tuna.

How did we get to the point of hunting one of the oceans’ great fish to death with our eyes wide open? The answer is threefold: the demand for Eastern bluefin has grown tremendously in the past 20 years (Japan is still the biggest consumer, buying about 80% of the dwindling stock), technology for hunting and farming bluefin has enabled European fishing nations to catch more and more fish, and the international system of management has failed. Quotas for fishing nations are set by ICCAT for the eastern bluefin (other management bodies handle other populations of fish) but does little to enforce its own laws, which many argue are far too weak in the first place.

Joshua S. Reichert, Managing Director of the Pew Environment Group, said in a statement after the ICIJ report was released:

The entire bluefin tuna supply chain in the Mediterranean is mismanaged and subject to cheating and fraud – from the fishermen all the way up to government officials. This new report verifies what scientists and conservationists have been saying for decades: bluefin tuna catches are far too high and don’t take into consideration the staggering amounts of illegal fishing, which continues to threaten the future of one of the most sought after fish in the sea. If left unchecked, this will lead to a collapse of the fishery.

Yesterday’s report will give them something to talk about next week in Paris, when regulators meet to discuss the management of bluefin tuna and other species in the East Atlantic and Mediterranean. The last time that scientists called for a dramatic reduction of the tuna quota from ICCAT, it didn’t happen. It’s already an offer they can’t refuse.