Will Obama Support the Bluefin Tuna Ban?

The European Parliament agreed to support a ban on trading bluefin Wednesday despite fears by nations like Greece, Spain, and Malta, whose fisherman would be most affected. This decision comes ahead of the next meeting in March of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES)–a treaty between 175 governments that protects around 33,000 species to varying degrees–and is a significant step towards adding the bluefin to the treaty. The ban proposed by the European Parliament would allow domestic fishing, covering only the international trade of bluefin tuna. [UPDATE below]

Michael Sutton, Vice President of the Monterey Bay Aquarium, which has been monitoring the species, has observed its dramatic decline in recent decades. He praised Europe for bringing attention to the decline of the bluefin. “If we have the fortitude to give this species a break, it will mean more jobs, more profits, and a healthier ecosystem,” he said.

Sutton believes that the President’s Council on Environmental Quality will have to take a position on this issue in the coming weeks, ahead of CITES, despite [potential] disagreement between the Department of the Interior, which is taking sides with industry, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which came out in support of the bluefin trade ban, and adding bluefin to CITES, in October. [UPDATE: the Department of Interior supports listing the bluefin tuna with CITES. While NOAA came out in support in October, they are being pressured by the fisheries to agree that the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) has acted responsibly since then, leaving out the need for the CITES listing. The question remains whether the administration will step in before there is disagreement between the two and make a strong statement.]

“I like to say that bluefin is the ‘Porsche’ of the fishing industry,” he said, referring to the fact that one bluefin tuna can fetch up to $100,000 in Japan, where 80% of this specific species of tuna is eaten. “Because of that there is bound to be controversy…[But] driving the fish to extinction is not good for livelihoods in the long term.”

Indeed, the Japanese are the most opposed to the trading ban on bluefin, as the source of one of their most prized foods–toro sashimi–is imported mostly from the Mediterranean. Adding to the issue, as seen in the documentary film on overfishing that looked specifically at the plight of the bluefin, The End of the Line, the company Mitsubishi has been hoarding tuna waiting for just such an opportunity to control the market.

The U.S. fishing of bluefin is largely confined to the Northeast coast, and represents 2% of the total world catch. Therefore, it could be argued that most of the damage to the bluefin population is happening in the Mediterranean. However, were the US to act decisively on this issue, it would bolster the issue at CITES, and support a species that is well on its way towards extinction. “At this point, we’re asking the Administration to join the world community and signal its unqualified support for CITES action,” said Sutton. “Only a trade ban would relieve the immediate pressure on the species and serve as a powerful incentive for the Atlantic Tunas Commission to prepare and implement a recovery plan.”

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