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Saving tuna from overfishing means playing politics

Fisheries provide animal protein for much of the world’s population, and provide livelihoods for the millions of people who work in fishing industries. But overfishing, in conjunction with other human…

It will take more than science to save the last tuna from becoming sashimi. x v r/Flickr

Fisheries provide animal protein for much of the world’s population, and provide livelihoods for the millions of people who work in fishing industries. But overfishing, in conjunction with other human activities affecting ocean environments, is reaching catastrophic levels.

Tuna has taken a tumble, but can information save it?

Bluefin tuna is one of the species commonly used for sashimi. Since industrial fishing took off in the 1950s, stocks of this fish have been reduced by more than 90%.

Bigeye tuna stocks are around 13% of pre-1950 levels, and yellowfin tuna stocks are around 50%. Governments seem unable to put in place conservation measures that will halt this trend.

Most of the knowledge generated for conservation efforts is biological. Debates about sustainability often assume that we just need good science about what fishing is doing to the marine environment.

Once we have information, governments should legislate and enforce accordingly, and companies will consequently modify their behaviour.

“Science should drive sustainability – not politics,” says Dr Victor Restrepo, Chair of the Scientific Advisory Committee of International Seafood Sustainability Foundation on the Foundation website.

Conservation measures only work, however, when they are politically feasible and in alignment with commercial incentive structures.

Science changes things when it makes commercial and political sense

We can learn a lot about the value of political knowledge in conservation measures by looking at the practices of the Taiwanese sashimi tuna fishing fleet. This fleet is a major supplier of sashimi tunas, and one of the main culprits in overfishing.

The Taiwanese government did not extend strong control over its fleet. It also allowed Taiwanese fishing companies to locate their vessels in other countries, such as Belize, that do not regulate the fleets based there.

Complaints against the practices of the Taiwanese fleet escalated for several years in the early 2000s and the fisheries agency tried to extend greater control. But wealthy fishing company owners in the port city of Kaoshiung resisted. Because they were electorally important, the fisheries agency was unable to make significant headway.

Japan led the complaints against Taiwan. The rise of the Taiwanese fleet in supplying sashimi fish directly mirrored the decline of the Japanese fleet, and the tuna fishing industry is culturally and politically powerful in Japan.

Eventually the Japanese government responded by cutting imports of Taiwanese sashimi tunas in 2005. This was devastating for the fishing companies around Kaoshiung, costing tens of millions of US dollars and thousands of jobs.

The Taiwanese fishing industry then changed its attitude towards regulation because it needed to return to good standing. According to industry sources, since then the Taiwanese Fisheries Agency has been more effective in regulating the Taiwanese fleet.

This case shows that political knowledge about fisheries in one country is not enough.

Local knowledge is not enough to save fisheries

Why was the Japanese government willing to implement trade sanctions in this case and not others? Was the Japanese government affected by 2005 revelations that the Japanese fleet had been systematically overcatching southern bluefin tuna?

And how can a trade sanction work as a fisheries conservation measure anyway?

To understand the politics of sustainability in sashimi tunas, there is a lot of knowledge to cover. One must know about fishing in relevant countries, the international seafood trade regime and fisheries regulation frameworks, and the global commercial environment of tuna production and trade.

Fisheries products are the most highly traded food commodity internationally. Measures to prevent overfishing must be effective all the way to the retailer, not just at the point of fishing.

Anyone hoping to influence the sustainability of tuna fishing must take into account that politics affects decision-making at every stage along the chain.