Is it a Porsche? Is it a Jag? Nah, it’s a fish

You've had your chips
Worth every penny

It’s bigger, faster, and costlier than a sports car. And you can eat it too. It’s a bluefin tuna. An adult can grow to over 4 metres and 650 kg and can accelerate to 70 to 100 km/hour practically instantaneously when closing in on prey.

At an auction in Tokyo’s Tsujiki market last month, a single bluefin sold for 16.3 million yen ($177,777). The record is 20.2 million yen ($220,000) for another tuna in 2001. You can easily understand why fishers want to catch as many as they can.

It wasn’t always the case. For Canadian fishers off Prince Edward Island, bluefin tuna were a nuisance, to be cut out of nets and flung away – bycatch in fisheries jargon. Then Japan Airlines started flights from the island to Tokyo.

It may be big, bold and beautiful, but the tuna is no match for a globalised supply chain and long lines of hooks over 80 km in length. Or for “ranching” – taking the young fish alive and fattening them in pens.

These techniques are so efficient, and stocks have been hit so hard, that there have been calls to put the species on the UN’s Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) list.

France now supports calls for an international ban on trade in bluefin tuna, and many French fishers said they were “scandalised” by the decision.

It can be hard for people outside the industry to understand the fishers’ attitude. The problem and solution seem obvious. Too many boats chasing too few fish, so don’t catch so many.

Despite the high-tech, globalised nature of much of modern fishing, it is still based on communities where tradition is important and fishing is a way of life as much as a job. Practically everybody in the community may be affected by a decline in fishing activity, whether they are directly involved in catching and processing fish or not.

This makes change hard, especially if there are few other industries in the region. Yet the alternative can be much worse – the collapse of fishing and the decay of the communities it supported.

Conservation efforts by one group can be worthless if the only result is to allow other people a bigger share of the catch. If fisheries are to be sustainable, the political and other barriers to effective co-operation have to be overcome.

There is hope. Within the fishing industry, there are voices calling for change. Interviewed for the forthcoming Insights book on fisheries, Bernard Groisard, with over 50 years experience in tuna fishing from the French island of Ile d’Yeu, has a clear idea of the best strategy to adopt:

It has to be sustainable, and we have to be careful. The collapse of the anchovy fishery is there to remind us: when stocks are low, all you can do is wait. Nature knows what it’s doing. Given time the resource will recover.

Useful links

OECD work on fisheries

Cannon Law

What’s the link between how far you could fire a gun in the 17th century, the 2009 Nobel Prize for economics, and the forthcoming Insights book on Fisheries? The answer is: governance.

The last chapter of the Insights looks at how fish stocks could be managed sustainably. One of the issues is that the oceans are a global commons, with every nation having the right to travel on them and exploit what is in or under them.

It’s not an unlimited right though, being governed by the Law of the Sea. That’s where the guns come in. In the 17th century, certain aspects of territorial integrity and sovereignty were decided on the basis of the “cannon shot rule” – how far you could fire a cannon. The three-mile limit around a coast is based on this. This has now been extended to 200 miles, but that still leaves out most of the world’s oceans. (more…)

Climate change: Fisheries too

When thinking about climate change, we usually think about the Earth’s atmosphere, but oceans are affected too, with serious impacts on marine life.

According to a new study by the FAO increasing temperatures could have dire consequences for the fishing industry. Over 500 million people rely on fish as a source of protein and income, and fish provide at least half the animal proteins and dietary minerals for 400 million of the world’s poorest people.

The FAO says both marine and inland fisheries are poorly positioned to withstand the new problems posed by climate change. Marine fisheries in particular may see major decline, as they are already trying to cope with overfishing, habitat loss and mismanagement.

These issues are explored in a forthcoming Insights, Fisheries: While Stocks Last? to be published in Spring 2010 to coincide with a major OECD conference on aquaculture.