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The Diminishing Tuna: Round Two

Jan Lee headshotWords by Jan Lee
Energy & Environment
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Several times a week,  some of Japan's most affluent restauranteurs gather in an old warehouse in central Tokyo to bid on a commodity that is central to their businesses' success: tuna. Customers and gawking tourists gather on the cold auction floor to observe a spectacle that each year makes international news. Last January's auction of one bluefin tuna garnered more than $30,000; another, in 2013, was sold for $1.76 million.

Still, it isn't just the exceptional size of these fish that is driving sales at the Tsukiji Fish Market. It's the tentative state of global tuna sales.

According to Greenpeace, the fish that sushi restaurants rely upon for their high-priced sashimi dishes is now endangered. Sixty percent of the world's tuna stocks is now harvested from the Pacific Ocean, and bluefin prized for its delicate meat fills a substantial demand in Japan. More than 70 percent of the bluefin that is caught ends up in Japan.

And Greenpeace isn't the only organization that is sounding alarm:


  • Scientists from the International Scientific Committee to Study the Tuna and Tuna-Like Species of the North Pacific Ocean warned in 2013 that bluefin numbers were at alarming levels and were, at that time, 96 percent below unfished levels.

  • The World Wildlife Fund and the Association of Professional Observers called on the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC) in 2013 to implement "urgent measures" to stop illegal, unregulated and unreported (IUU) fishing.

  • A study published by the European Union in 2014 suggested the problems stemming from IUU fishing were multi-factorial, including a "lack of transparency" that allowed international agencies to regulate the problem. According to the report, annual losses from illegal fishing amount to $10  billion to $23.5  billion.

In July of this year, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration published a final rule concerning catch limits of the bluefin tuna in the eastern Pacific Ocean. The limits are among the most current indications that bluefin stocks are at precarious levels. But, as Greenpeace points out, it isn't the U.S. or Canada fishing fleets that are out of compliance, and NOAA regulations do little to set affect IUU fishing by internationally-registered vessels.

It's hard to believe we are at this point again. In the 1980s, entire cities' economies were transformed by the collapse of West Coast fish stocks. San Diego, once a hub for the tuna industry, experienced years of unemployment problems as one cannery after another folded from overfishing. One of my first jobs was serving as an interpreter for one of the city's newly acquired canneries, which employed 700 cannery workers and closed three years after it opened. Unemployment in San Diego skyrocketed as retraining programs went into place, and canneries and supporting infrastructure closed down.

While optimists would likely point out that San Diego's tuna seiners have been replaced by a robust cruise ship industry (and Bumble Bee, Carnation and Sun Harbor docks have been replaced by mom-and-pop fishing vessels), it took decades for the city to recover -- something that Southern California's tuna stocks have not yet done. The loss of the bluefin tuna could spell a much greater loss than a city's historic maritime industry, or the diminishing returns of a fish auction that now trades on affluence and exceptional luck.

Sea Shepherd and Libyan tuna vessel - Simon K Ager; Tokyo Fish Market - David Prasad; San Diego - Port of San Diego

Jan Lee headshotJan Lee

Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.

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