Monday, March 15, 2010

Tuna & Somalia: Blood Fishing

Members of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, better known as CITES (website here), are currently gathered in Doha, Qatar, to discuss a number of issues relating to the preservation of various species around the globe. Later this week, the delegates are to consider recommending an all-out ban on the trading of Atlantic bluefin tuna. It's an issue that has the support of many in the West, but is vigorously opposed by East Asian nations, notably Japan and South Korea.

The reason that CITES is considering a ban on the export of Atlantic bluefin is that it has been overfished, to the point that some observers wonder whether the species can survive at current levels of harvesting. (The Atlantic, or northern, bluefin tuna is found not only in that eponymous ocean but also the Mediterranean Sea and is a staple of raw food menus such as sushi and sashimi. About 80% of the annual catch is reported to end up in Japan.)

Global tuna populations of various species have been on the decline for some time, a reflection of increased consumer demand and more effective means of catching the fish. The CITES meeting comes close on the heels of that of the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission's recent gathering in Busan, South Korea, in which the IOTC gave some thought to the yellowfin, skipjack and big eye tuna fisheries carried out the waters off East Africa, among other places. The IOTC put forth an idea to close the fishery off the Somali coastline to its members. This is something that the head of the World Wildlife Fund's Coastal East Africa Marine Programme, Dr. Amani Ngusaru, called a, "laughable measure".

When the IOTC uses the piracy problem off Somalia as a reason to curtail foreign fishing in those waters, things are indeed skewed. The problem, in this case, is not the pirates. It's the foreign fishing vessels working the seas in that part of the world, harvesting as much as they can catch and, in many cases, paying protection money to the pirate gangs in order to avoid being attacked. (On the IOTC website, they have a list of vessels they have identified as engaging in illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing in the Indian ocean. That list totals all of three vessels in the last five years. It's safe to say this is far from comprehensive.)

Beyond this, though, comes the idea that if a bluefin tuna ban is put in place by CITES, there might be some fishers who will depart the Mediterranean for the seas off East Africa in search of yellowfins. Think of it as a sort of quid pro quo for firms with seasoned fishermen, well-equipped boats and an Asian market (European, too) that wants the product.

Think, too, that these self-same foreign fishers can relocate their vessels to the waters off Somalia by the summer, when piracy normally falls off owing to the sea conditions. If this does occur, it will give fodder to the apologists who say pirates are merely trying to defend their people from illegal- and over-fishing.

As I've said before, the international community should consider a comprehensive ban on foreign fishing off the Somali coast as a means of both undermining the moral highground being used by some pirate supporters and also as a way to support the local Somali fishery. Might also save some tuna, unless the pirates decide to get in on the export business themselves, which is not inconceivable.

And think about all this the next time you sit down for some sushi. Depending on where you are, the fish on your plate may be either caught from a species in danger or harvested off Somalia. Either way, today's tuna has become part of what my Kenyan colleague Andrew Mwangura calls 'blood fishing', just like blood diamonds.

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