Bluefin Blues:

Japan consumes the lion's share of Bluefin tuna, but it has plenty of company in its love of this flavorful fish. The growing popularity of sushi, and the use of sushi-grade tuna in other dishes, is putting tremendous pressure on wild stocks of the prized fish.

Japan -- after years of overfishing a species that is as much sacrament as food -- is feeling the pinch more than any other country.

As of this year and for the next four years, the country's annual fishing quota has been slashed in half for southern bluefin tuna, found in the warm waters of the Southern Hemisphere. And its quota for Atlantic bluefin has been cut by almost a quarter. . . .

Wholesale tuna prices, up about 20 percent in the past year, are so high that Japanese restaurant owners say they cannot pass on the full cost to customers. . . .

Across Japan, quotas are squeezing the supply of sashimi tuna, and soaring prices are reducing demand. In the first quarter of this year, imports fell 24 percent compared with the previous year, according to one recent industry report. Another report says that for all of 2006, household consumption of sashimi tuna fell 20 percent.

Yet as the Japanese eat less sashimi-grade tuna, Americans, Europeans and Chinese are eating more. In the United States, the second-largest market for fresh tuna, imports have continued to rise this year. That, in turn, is driving up demand and prices. It is also putting further pressure on tuna stocks that have been overfished for decades. . . .

Since 1950, the global catch has risen more than tenfold, to more than 4 million tons in 2002, '03 and '04. A report this year by the World Wildlife Fund said that the tuna fishing fleet is now far larger -- in some cases 70 percent larger -- than is needed for a sustainable catch.

The consequences have been severe, especially for bluefin tuna. The total population of southern bluefin has been reduced to about 8 percent of levels before industrial fishing took off in the 1950s, according to a U.N. report.

[Sidenote: I'm still puzzling over the idea of "a Catherine Zeta-Jones type of tuna," a bluefin that, as described by a Japanese vendor, has the desired "beauty and balanced plumpness."]

Bill Poser (mail) (www):
I suspect that the Catherine Zeta-Jones reference has to do with the fact that what connoisseurs consider the most desirable tuna is the relatively fatty meat from the underbelly. A nice plump tuna will have a lot of this; a skinny, Twiggy sort of tuna, will not.
11.11.2007 3:07pm
arbitraryaardvark (mail) (www):
There's a simple solution: piracy. Pirates are the natural predator of the bluefin tuna fishers. Reintroducing pirates will help bring the number of fishers back into a sustainable balance. Privateering, letters of marque, would be a good intermediate step, sort of like school vouchers.
11.11.2007 3:13pm
SomeFella (mail):
I fully support the privateering solution. I will be seeking a leave of absence from law school to help the environment as a Pirate in the South Seas. I'm looking for a crew- I have extensive knowledge of pirates (Pirates of the Caribbean Dead Man's Chest has been running on my HD movie channels for months). Who's with me?
11.11.2007 7:08pm
Mark H.:
I understand exactly what he means by the CZJ reference and I agree wholeheartedly at that!
11.11.2007 7:40pm
btw, the "lion's share" is 100%, not a mere majority. It is a figure of speech that is misused more often than not, though the misuse does not amount to a lion's share of all use.
11.11.2007 10:31pm
Bill Poser (mail) (www):

No, the "lion's share" means the majority. The term may once have meant the entirety since that it how it is used in one version of the fable in which it originates, but that is not how people use it today. In any case, even the historical meaning is not clear as there are also versions of Aesop's Fables in which the lion only takes 3/4 of the meat.
11.11.2007 10:54pm
The lion's exact share is determined by a contract between the aforesaid lions and the vultures, hyenas, and others. Shares vary with the relative bargaining strengths of the players.
11.12.2007 3:00am
Patrick McKenzie (mail):
Japan -- after years of overfishing a species that is as much sacrament as food -- is feeling the pinch more than any other country.

While I appreciate that newspapers are to be allowed a little artistic license when writing prose, maguro is not a sacrament here, sorry. It is a popular and iconic variety of a popular type of food, nothing more. This is analagous to calling pepperoni pizza a sacrament -- it is neither fair to sacraments, pizza, or readers who might get the wrong impression about something outside of their everyday experience because of the faulty analogy.

It would not be true to say that all Japanese people like maguro. It would not be true to say that all sushi eaters here like maguro. It would be catastrophically untrue to say that the typical sushi restaraunt gets most of its sales from maguro (which, unless you order a la carte, is typically one piece of an 8 to 12 piece set at a restaraunt which sells 40+ varieties of sushi).

There is also just a whiff of "Oh those wacky Japanese people" going on here, with a sort of monomaniacal focus on their presumed weird cultural rituals in an article overpowering the actual fact that 75% of any overfishing problem there might be can't possibly have been directly caused by Japanese culture. That is a good "angle" but bad journalism.
11.12.2007 4:08am
Your account of the lion's share, gentlemen, is a bit of a curate's egg.
11.12.2007 5:37am
DCL (mail):
I practice environmental law, so these issues concern me greatly. Frankly, I think they should concern us all and not merely because like most people I enjoy sushi from time to time. The oceans are seriously dramatically overfished. Environmental groups can't seem to make any headway addressing this, so what say you? Must we allow "the market" to destroy fish stocks to the point of commercial oblivion if not ecological extinction?
11.12.2007 10:26am
Thales (mail) (www):
Aardvark: Thanks for a good morning laugh. Don't forget letters of reprisal also.

Overfishing is a serious problem without an obvious "market" solution, because except in limited cases it is impractical or illegal to assign ownership rights over parts of the seas/ocean floors, etc and thereby force the fishers to conserve their own stocks rather than keep taking from the commons (this fishing property rights sort of experiment has beeen tried in some coastal waters, with some success I am told).

So to combat overfishing we are left with treaties, diplomatic pressures, and consumer awareness. On this last point, I really recommend that all seafood eaters check out the website of the Monterey Bay Aquarium. It publishes and maintains a list of fish species and categorizes them based on both ecology and food safety. You can print it out as a wallet sized card to take with you to restaurants and the supermarket. Bluefin has been on the "don't eat" list for quite some time, along with the popular "Chilean Sea Bass" (once named Patagonian Toothfish or something less appetizing). Also to avoid: Farm -raised (i.e. fed with corn products, seriously) salmon. You want Pacific wild line caught stuff. Most quality seafood restaurants will tell you where the fish comes from, either voluntarily or if you ask. A lot of what is on a menu is unsustainably raised/caught or misleadingly labeled, but there are usually some good choices.
11.12.2007 11:22am
Harry Eagar (mail):
Yeah, but that didn't keep Al Gore from eating sea bass.

Now, let me see. Why would preaching by phony environmentalists not be successful in dissuading people like me from abjuring Patagonian toothfish and leaving it all for the phoney environmentalists?

Who's to say an honest environmental campaign would not work? It's never been attempted.

And speaking of curate's eggs, lion's shares and so on, does anybody really think that Pakistan's emergency decrees are 'draconian'?
11.12.2007 6:59pm
Thales (mail) (www):
"Now, let me see. Why would preaching by phony environmentalists not be successful in dissuading people like me from abjuring Patagonian toothfish and leaving it all for the phoney environmentalists?"

Wow. If I've interpreted that correctly, it's pretty mean-spirited, even for the VC comments. I actually do care about losing species of fish, both because biodiversity is good and because they are tasty. I'm hardly a beret-wearing Green, but I am not "phony." Encouraging voluntary consumer action seems pretty non-threatening to people of your (presumably conservative) sensibilities. Note also that I raised the possibility of a market-like solution to the actual problem of depleted fish stocks, and noted that it's not feasible. If one is, I would be encouraged to hear of it. But conservation of wildlife for the future is not exactly a hard Left position.
11.12.2007 9:51pm
TokyoTom (mail):
This is a classic story of a tragedy of the commons at work with respect to an unowned/unregulated open-access resource.

Despite the cutbacks cited in the WaPo article, bluefin and other tuna are still being overfished, both because quotas are being set too high and because no one can force others to abide by quotas. Japan and other leading fishing nations urgently need to figure out how to "privatize the commons" by preventing unapproved take, and then jointly managing the fishery. Perhaps eventually technology will advance sufficiently for stocks to be identified and their locations monitored, and ITQs (individual transferrable quotas) will be agreed.

It is nice to see Japan finally starting to lead the way on some of these fishery issues, since it stands to lose alot when as global fisheries crash. Goodwill and practical managment experience developed for tuna and other international fisheries should also be useful in generating solutions (property rights/common property/private law) for problems subject to persistent bloviating, like whales.

Harry, would you call the Japanese tuna buyer noted in the WaPo story and featured in the video another dishonest "environmentalist"? Or is he another resource user interested in protecting one of the resources he lives by? And by the way, as for those nasty enviros you love to hate - what market means exist for them to express their personal preferences? We all know that where resources are owned and transferrable, people can easily put there money where their mouth is.

It is precisely with respoect to resources that are NOT owned or managed that we see "environmental" problems, and people expressing their respective preferences through market boycotts, information campaigns, the media and political pressure. You don't like it, then push for development of effective ownership/managment regimes.
11.13.2007 8:15am