The U.N.'s Ocean Death Panel

March 28, 2010 07:13 PM
Pass the bluefin sushi, shark fin soup and polar bear paw ashtray.

It's all over except for the name change following the March 13-25
meeting of the U.N.'s Convention on the International Trade in
Endangered Species (CITES) in Doha, Qatar that included a Japanese
Embassy reception serving highly endangered Bluefin tuna. Its time to
rebrand CITES the Corporate Inspired Termination of Existing Sealife.
And hey Japan, it's not called "bashing" when you go after a criminal.

But first, a little background. Despite our wars, homicide rates,
illnesses, accidents and addictions, humans remain prolific breeders,
having more than doubled our population in the last 45 years from 3
billion to almost 7 billion. We're also highly effective predators.
Having wiped out most large land animals and replaced them with
domesticated meat animals like pigs and cattle, we're now in the process
of repeating this systemic carnage in the sea, wiping out marine
wildlife such as cod, tuna and sharks faster than they can reproduce,
even as we rapidly expand industrial-scale fish farming, recreating the
agricultural revolution of 10,000 years ago (only in a far less
sustainable manner -- we're feeding the farmed fish on wild fish).

Our atavistic urge to kill off potential competitors and turn wildlife
into dead objects of wealth, status and adornment was reflected at the
CITES meeting in Doha Qatar, an oil rich Arab state on the Persian Gulf
though they prefer to call it the Arabian Gulf. Either way, it's the
deadest sea I've ever sailed on, with little more than oil rigs,
jellyfish and sea snakes. (And perhaps a model for the world's oceans in
the not-too-distant future, thanks to the efforts of Japan's delegation
to CITES and the quiet cooperation they received from the world's latest
superpower, the People's Republic of China).

Unlike Germany, Japan never seriously accepted responsibility for its
crimes during World War Two and I'm sure after it has helped facilitate
the decimation of the seas its government will find a way to again deny
responsibility for this latest crime, continuing to brand any criticism
of its corporate fleets and seafood companies, "Japan Bashing."

Along with mercury-contaminated dolphins and whales, the Japanese
consume over 75 percent of the world's (also mercury laden) Bluefin tuna
as sushi and sashimi. These large apex predator fish can sell for
$10,000 each (one huge fish once fetched $175,000). Given that kind of
market incentive it's no surprise that the existing stocks have
plummeted. The Eastern Atlantic and Mediterranean stock is nearing total
collapse while the Western Atlantic stock, that includes U.S. Bluefin,
has declined some 80 percent since the 1970s.

Still, the CITES meeting not only failed to enact a ban on trade in
Bluefin tuna meat (very expensive Japanese sushi), but also rejected any
protection for seven species of highly endangered sharks (used in shark
fin soup, a gelatinous $100 a bowl status symbol in China). They also
refused to protect rare pink and red corals (used for expensive jewelry)
or even polar bear body parts (proof of the kill for "sports hunters").

Following the vote on Bluefin, Japanese delegates began cheering along
with some of their "friends." As with the International Whaling
Commission (IWC) meetings where Japan continues to push for a renewal of
commercial whaling, many of these "friends" are in fact delegates from
poor developing countries who are given financial aid by Japan in
exchange for their votes. Japan also pays many poor coastal and island
nations fees to fish tuna in their waters.

Unfortunately, few of these nations have their own Coast Guards to make
sure that foreign fishing vessels obey the rules and don't destroy the
living resources that local fishing communities also depend on. U.S.
Coast Guard Commandant Thad Allen recently told me he has grave concerns
about the ability of emerging states to enforce fisheries laws within
their 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zones. The two most critical examples
he cited were Micronesian (Pacific) and Southwest African states that he
said, "are really at the mercy of some of these foreign fleets."
Among the most destructive of these fleets are the Japanese, Chinese,
South Korean and Spanish, though the Italians do their fair share of
illegal fishing in the Mediterranean, mainly targeting the large, sleek
torpedo-shaped Bluefin.

Two major science studies on overfishing were released this decade. One
reported 90 percent of the biggest pelagic (open ocean) fish --
including sharks, tuna and billfish -- have been eliminated by
overfishing just since 1950. This study was largely based on catch
records by Japan's global longline fishing fleet. The other study
suggests if present trends of industrial overfishing continue without
change there will be no commercially viable wild fisheries left by
mid-century. This is the study Japan seems determined to prove right.
Unfortunately, the U.N. has now become its accomplice in this
shortsighted rush to end our last great hunter-gatherer activity on our
last great wilderness commons.

After that comes to pass, we'll just have to start tightening our belts
and hanging on tighter as twenty percent of our animal protein is
eliminated from the global diet and the benefits and natural services
provided by living marine ecosystems and their keystone species like
shark and tuna begin to fade away. We'll also have to start adjusting
some of our cultural references. After all, there're always more fish in
the sea.

Until there's not.

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