Blue Fin Tuna, Genetically Altered Salmon and Environmental Progress
The New York Times Magazine has an excellent (and long) article on the demise of blue fin tuna and the possible responses to it. However, to get to the good part you have to wade through some typical Greenpeace silliness:
But as the Zodiacs approached the French tuna-fishing boat Jean-Marie Christian VI, confusion engulfed the scene. As anticipated, the French seiner launched its skiffs and started to draw a net closed around the tuna school. Upon seeing the Greenpeace Zodiacs zooming in, the captain of the Jean-Marie Christian VI issued a call. “Mayday!” he shouted over the radio. “Pirate attack!” Other tuna boats responded to the alert and arrived to help. The Greenpeace activists identified themselves over the VHF, announcing they were staging a “peaceful action.”
Aboard one Zodiac, Frank Hewetson, a 20-year Greenpeace veteran who in his salad days as a protester scaled the first BP deepwater oil rigs off Scotland, tried to direct his pilot toward the net so that he could throw a daisy chain of sandbags over its floating edge and allow the bluefin to escape. But before Hewetson could deploy his gear, a French fishing skiff rammed his Zodiac. A moment later Hewetson was dragged by the leg toward the bow. “At first I thought I’d been lassoed,” Hewetson later told me from his hospital bed in London. “But then I looked down. ” A fisherman trying to puncture the Zodiac had swung a three-pronged grappling hook attached to a rope into the boat and snagged Hewetson clean through his leg between the bone and the calf muscle. (Using the old language of whale protests, Greenpeace would later report to Agence France-Presse that Hewetson had been “harpooned.”)
Basically, Greenpeace was trying to dislodge the fishermen’s net and the fishermen, not unreasonably, thought they were pirates, rammed them and in the process hooked one of the protestors. I realize the political process is slow to the point of agony, but Greenpeace needs to be smarter than this.
Back to the article, in essence, the author is arguing that the demise of blue fin tuna is a point of change where we realize that the ocean is not a limitless supply of food and that we need to focus in on a few fish (four, actually) that can be farmed in a sustainable way:
But appetites continued to outstrip supply. Global seafood consumption has increased consistently to the point where we now remove more wild fish and shellfish from the oceans every year than the weight of the human population of China. This latest surge has taken us past the Age of Cod and landed us squarely in the Age of Tuna. Fishing has expanded over the continental shelves into the international no-man’s territory known as the high seas — the ocean territory that begins outside of national “exclusive economic zones,” or E.E.Z.’s, usually 200 nautical miles out from a country’s coast, and continues until it hits the E.E.Z. of another country. The high seas are owned by no one and governed by largely feeble multinational agreements. According to the Sea Around Us project of the University of British Columbia’s Fisheries Center, catches from the high seas have risen by 700 percent in the last half-century, and much of that increase is tuna. Moreover, because tuna cross so many boundaries, even when tuna do leave the high seas and tarry in any one nation’s territorial waters (as Atlantic bluefin usually do), they remain under the foggy international jurisdiction of poorly enforced tuna treaties.
The essentially ownerless nature of tuna has led to the last great wild-fish gold rush the world may ever see. The most noticeable result of this has been the decline of the giant Atlantic bluefin tuna. But the Atlantic bluefin is just a symptom of a metastasizing tuna disease. The United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization reports that 7 of the 23 commercially fished tuna stocksare overfished or depleted. An additional nine stocks are also threatened. The Pew Environment Group’s tuna campaign asserts that “the boats seeking these tuna are responsible for more hooks and nets in the water than any other fishery.”
Tuna then are both a real thing and a metaphor. Literally they are one of the last big public supplies of wild fish left in the world. Metaphorically they are the terminus of an idea: that the ocean is an endless resource where new fish can always be found. In the years to come we can treat tuna as a mile marker to zoom past on our way toward annihilating the wild ocean or as a stop sign that compels us to turn back and radically reconsider.
Only time will tell if tuna is a “mile marker” or not, but it’s never too soon to begin treating overfishing as a tragedy of the commons, which it is, and begin handling it accordingly. No doubt a mixed approach will be necessary that will contain market mechanisms and some instances of command and control. As for market mechanisms, I would prefer a system of tradable fishing quotas. In essence, there would be a permit that entitled existing fishermen to catch a certain amount of fish each year in an area and the permit would be tradable, creating a transferrable property right that would have value, much like the medallion system for taxi cabs in New York City (though that’s not a commons problem).
A fisherman who wanted to exit fishing at some point, either for retirement or to start a new career, could sell his permit to another fisherman. The benefits to this seem obvious to me, such as creating a method for fishermen to exit or enter the profession based on how much it’s worth to them while also giving them a sort of “ownership” of the ocean. Alone though, it won’t be enough.
The article goes into some detail discussing the existing treaty arrangements and the potential solutions to the larger problem of overfishing. For once, this is an area where the UN’s involvement is essential and welcome, to me. We’re dealing with a resource that’s in international waters and no other organization has jurisdiction. Of course, treaties will be needed and command and control policies, such as a ban on fishing in large parts of the ocean, might be necessary to allow fisheries to recover.
There’s another article that’s quite interesting on genetically engineered salmon that I wanted to address, but this post is quite long already. I’ll leave you with a comment from the article’s comment section (#236) that’s nothing more than a leftist laundry list of Luddite laments:
Scientists are killing us with their good intentions. Chernobyl, Deep water drilling, Bhopal, Roundup Ready soybeans, genetically modified fast growing chickens, cows and now fish. This planet is going to hell in a handbasket. The problem is overpopulation, greed and ignorance compounded by “scientific breakthroughs” that allow overpopulation, greed and ignorance to continue uninterupted.
Now most of these aren’t even necessarily bad, but that’s a discussion for another time. Between the far left’s anti-science positions as described above and the far right’s creationism and such, it’s a wonder there was ever a Renaissance or Enlightenment.