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Loving Tuna to Death: The Price of Wild Food

3p is proud to partner with the Presidio Graduate School’s Macroeconomics course on a blogging series about “the economics of sustainability.” This post is part of that series. To follow along, please click here.


By Jenny Sant’Anna

What would you pay for the last piece of Toro in the world? Is that an economic question or a moral one? Either way, someone may actually buy that last piece of Toro within the next decade. Toro, or kuro maguro, is the luscious, ethereal belly flesh of bluefin tuna, often the most expensive menu item in a sushi restaurant. Yet bluefin tuna species (there are three) are in dire straits. Stocks are purported to be below 15 percent of virgin stock levels and imminent collapse is predicted, possibly as soon as 2012. Still, the intergovernmental agencies charged with managing the bluefin fisheries continue to release catch quotas above the scientifically recommended limits, even though these agencies know illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing will likely double the take over and above the legal quotas.

Bluefin tuna, a long-lived, far-traveling apex predator is being fished to extinction. At least that is the prediction of such organizations as the Pew Environment Group, Greenpeace, and Oceana. Countries, including the U.S., Norway, and Italy, have offered their support in favor of a moratorium of the bluefin tuna fisheries and their listing as endangered species with the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). Even so, the call for the suspension of the fisheries at the CITES meeting in March of 2010 was met with vocal opposition by Libya and other developing countries who want to participate in these lucrative fisheries.

Just how lucrative are the bluefin tuna fisheries? Last January a single bluefin sold for $396,000 at the Tsukiji fish market in Japan. The 752-pound fish was one of 538 tunas sold that day. The prices, which had stabilized in the early 2000s, have been climbing for the last few years. The prices are likely rising due to several factors. The fish are becoming scarce, fishing regulations are growing tougher, and the demand for bluefin is growing globally. Additionally, there is speculation that some companies may be stockpiling the giant fish.

Based on a review of tuna catch and sales numbers, Charles Clover of The End of the Line, suggested that companies dealing in bluefin, such as Mitsubishi Corp., are likely deep-freezing and holding up to 20,000 tons of bluefin per year. If this is true, might it be a hedge against the impending commercial extinction of species? And what about Mitsubishi, you may ask? Many who watched The End of the Line were surprised to learn that Mitsubishi, Corp. deals in bluefin tuna. They are the largest Japanese importer of bluefin and, by self-estimate, control about 40 percent of the market.

If bluefin tuna is being stockpiled as well as overfished, even more upward pressure is being applied to its price. The price may now be reflecting not only demand, but also rarity, both natural and artificial. In a thoughtful essay entitled, “The economics of extinction, one tuna at a time,” Thomas Hayden wonders if we have really reached a point where we are valuing the scarcity of a wild animal with an increase in price rather than with conservation?

If scientists agree that the Atlantic bluefin tuna population is collapsing, why does the intergovernmental agency responsible for setting fishing quotas, the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT), set the limit at a level scientists believe is too high for species recovery? Wild fish are a common resource. They have no owner, that is, until they are caught. If bluefin tuna had an owner, the resource would likely be conserved and managed to maximize profits over the long-term. With no owner, however, the growing scarcity of the species, and the resulting high prices, are leading to competitive rent seeking by interested parties. Rent seeking is the economic term for the selfish lobbying for favorable policies. Seeing the high prices, fishermen lobby for higher quotas and note that there appear to be plenty of fish to catch. Politicians feel the pressure from the fishermen they represent and lobby for higher quotas as well. The possibility for high profits also attracts illegal entrants to the fishery. The result is an over-capacity of fishing on a resource with an abundance that is biologically limited by its growth rate. Without effective management, the fishing industry will continue to try to obtain maximum profits in the short run leading to continued resource depletion. And ICCAT, apparently, will continue to cave-in to pressure and fall short of its resource management responsibilities. The world will also have to wait until 2013 for another opportunity to discuss adding bluefin tuna to the CITES endangered species list, a wait that may prove catastrophic, not only to bluefin, but to its entire ecosystem.

What is a sushi lover to do? Try following San Francisco’s Tataki Sushi Bar co-founder Casson Trenor’s 4-S rule: eat small fish, fish in season, fish served with silver (skin) on them, and shellfish. You can also refer to Trenor’s website, Sustainable Sushi, or the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch Sushi Guide. Let’s return to the question posed at the beginning of this piece, what would you pay for Toro if you knew it was extinct, or at least commercially extinct? For me, eating a wild fish on the brink of extinction is no longer a question of price, but is indeed a moral question.

Jenny Sant’Anna is an MPA candidate in Sustainable Management at Presidio Graduate School. Jenny is interested in all issues concerning ocean health. You can follow her Twitter account, Merbleue2050, or read ocean news, information and discussions at http://www.reddit.com/r/oceans.

Want to learn more about Presidio and this project? Click here.

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