Can You Eat Tuna Without Harming Dolphins?

My sense is: no.

This is a very complex subject. And while I applaud all efforts to create and enforce “dolphin-safe” practices, every time I read about how tuna are fished across the oceans, and the regimes used to try and protect dolphins, it just seems apparent that the problem of dolphin bycatch (along with bycatch of many other types of fish), as well as holes in the various dolphin-safe regimes and their enforcement, are significant.

For example, here is the Washington Post, on Mexico’s argument that US dolphin-safe regimes unfairly burden Mexican tuna fishermen:

Mexico’s challenge is an attempt to increase its $7.5 million share of a U.S. tuna import market worth more than a half-billion dollars. But it also raises questions for U.S. consumers about whether the tuna they eat is truly “dolphin safe” — not sold at the expense of a mammal Americans cherish.

There is no sure way to catch tuna without harming other marine life. Dolphins, as well as sharks, turtles and other animals, are unintentionally killed as bycatch in the quest for tuna.

The central question facing governments, corporations, environmentalists and consumers is how much is too much, and whether using a huge net to catch tuna in one part of the ocean is any worse than using them to catch it in other parts.

The World Trade Organization recently agreed with Mexico’s claim that U.S. regulations in the eastern tropical Pacific Ocean, where the Mexican fleet fishes, are far more restrictive than they are for the western and central Pacific where the U.S. fleet fishes.

In response to the WTO ruling, the United States proposed a new rule to strengthen protections for dolphins wherever tuna is fished. The comment phase for the rule closed last week.

The proposal, drafted by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, has one change that irks Mexico — allowing captains in the western and central Pacific to self-certify they are not taking dolphins as bycatch.

“The objective . . . was to assure no dolphins were injured, and you’re not doing that,” said Mark J. Robertson, president of Potomac Global Advisors, which advises companies and governments in international disputes. “How practical is it to trust captains to say how many dolphins they harmed?”

There is no question that the dolphin-safe regimes, and efforts to improve them, save dolphin lives. But there is also no question that eating tuna currently (and probably always will) involves the death of dolphins and other fish species. So anyone who truly cares about dolphins, or wants to eat ethically, should simply stop eating tuna (and, yes, I believe that true ethical eating requires not eating ANY fish, but I find the moral cost of tuna, likely involving hundreds of thousands of dead dolphins every year, to be particularly egregious).

The Future Of Fish

Any discussion of human fishing practices has to start with this chart (you know how I love infographics). Click image for full size:

The data presented here is damning on two levels. First, as a perfect visualization of the Tragedy Of The Commons, in which we don’t have the will or the wisdom to steward resources on a global scale, instead just seeking profit wherever it can be found, nevermind the fact that over time we are destroying the very stocks we seek profit from.

And second, because lots of the earth’s population relies on dwindling stocks of fish. This is a problem that Carl Safina and Brett Jenks focus on in a recent op-ed that argues for turning over fishing rights to local communities:

The journal Science recently published the first comprehensive analysis of more than 10,000 fisheries — roughly 80 percent of our global fish catch. The conclusion: fish populations worldwide are swiftly declining. This global analysis paints a stark new picture of a global ocean fished to exhaustion in an increasingly hungry world.

So, why are we hopeful? It’s because the analysis of global fisheries has a silver lining. We have not reached a point of no return. We have time. Solutions exist.

The good news is that many large commercial fisheries are already benefiting from the improved management of the last decade. The harder problem is with smaller-scale fisheries that local communities rely on for food and income. The fact is that small-scale fishers — who fish within 10 miles of their coast — account for nearly half of the world’s global catch and employ 33 million of the world’s 36 million fishermen, while also creating jobs for 107 million people in fish processing and selling [pdf]. Mostly poor, they live mainly in areas lacking fisheries management, monitoring and enforcement. No one is in a position to formally declare their fisheries “disasters.” They must just endure their situation. Or — take control of it.

Safina and Jenks propose a hyper-local approach to managing fisheries, called Territorial Use Rights, or TURF. Here’s how it would work:

In exchange for the privilege of exclusivity, local fishermen agree to establish and protect no-take zones. Results include increased fish populations, richer marine habitats, and coastlines less vulnerable to climate change — and more food for people.

Unleashing the self-interest of local fishermen to advance both conservation and economic development can create one of those rare win-win scenarios.

A growing body of research shows that fish populations inside a no-take zone can more than quadruple. Fish numbers outside the reserve can double. And, exclusive access enables investment and better management, increasing the catch’s value.

That feels right. No one cares more about managing stocks than the very people whose lives and livelihood depend on the stocks surviving. The challenge is that thousands of TURF zones would have to be created (and enforced) around the globe.

Traditional Fishing

That’s really just another way of saying that we have created a big problem so we need a dramatic solution. And I wish humanity had a better record of tackling big challenges by putting long term interests on a par with short term interests.

But the basic theme of localism is a very powerful one. And there is plenty of evidence that fishing’s emphasis on industrial practices and international fleets has been an accelerating disaster. So, sure, if we are going to do anything we should go local–and encourage traditional fishing practices that don’t strip mine the seas.

It would also help if the billions of people who don’t NEED to eat fish to survive would start laying off the tuna, Chilean Sea Bass, shrimp, shark fin soup, and every other fish our lust for high-end, boutique, food is destroying.

Top Predator: It’s A Reality Show (But Not A Fake One On TV)

These fins used to be attached to a "top predator." Until another predator came along.

The top predator in the oceans is not one of the top predators that normally pop into your head–sharks, killer whales, swordfish, marlin. The top predator in the oceans is, well, us.

And according to researchers from the University Of British Columbia we are doing a pretty thorough job of taking out all the top oceanic predators and destabilizing the oceanic food chain (with, for example, the sort of swordfishing practices I posted yesterday).

Here’s the bottom line:

In half of the North Atlantic and North Pacific waters under national jurisdiction, fishing has led to a 90-per-cent decrease in top predators since the 1950s, and the impacts are now headed south of the Equator, according to a new study published online December 5 in the journalMarine Ecological progress Series…

[snip]..The scientists found that the exploitation of marine predators first occurred in coastal areas of northern countries, then expanded to the high seas and to the southern hemisphere. The decline of top-of-the-food-chain predators also means widespread and fundamental changes to both the structure and function of marine systems.

This is exactly the sort of finding that reinforces the analogy of humanity as locusts, systematically and relentlessly depleting resources and species around the planet. As Daniel Pauly, principal investigator of the Sea Around Us Project at UBC, asks: “After running out of predator fish in the north Atlantic and Pacific, rather than implementing strict management and enforcement, the fishing industry pointed its bows south. The southern hemisphere predators are now on the same trajectory as the ones in the northern hemisphere. What happens next when we have nowhere left to turn?”

That’s an obvious question that has no good answer. And we got here because the price and consumption of fish in no way reflects the costs of this outcome.