Time to start worrying about fish

Tuna fish at Tsukiji market, Flickr image by SanctuAs Peter Singer and Jim Mason noted in their 2006 book The Ethics of What We Eat, even conscientious omnivores can find it difficult to concern themselves with animals who occupy remote underwater places and are, on the whole, decidedly not cute.

In the Australian context, fishing and aquaculture are the nation's fifth most valuable rural industry. The website for the Department for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry notes cautiously: 'The challenge is to develop the industry while ensuring the sustainability of Australia's marine ecosystem.'

There is a growing awareness that the scale of the global fishing industry is unsustainable. Fishing is second only to climate change as the greatest environmental threat to marine ecosystems.

The excesses of the fishing industry — a product of the focus on short-term financial gain over long-term sustainability — have dramatically depleted the ocean's supply of fish. Impacts on ordinary consumers, the global fishing industry and whole species of underwater creatures could be devastating.

One such species is the critically endangered southern bluefin tuna. A recent scientific report presented at last week's meeting of the Commission for the Conservation of Southern Bluefin Tuna in South Korea reveals that the tuna's spawning stock has shrunk dramatically. It is now a mere 5 per cent of its level in the 1940s.

There are currently moves in Europe to list the northern bluefin tuna as a critically endangered species so that its capture and export are banned entirely. Notably, the situation of the southern bluefin tuna is direr than that of its northern equivalent.

At last week's Commission meeting, the Australian Government's opening statement was stark: 'this is an unacceptable situation for any fishery from a biological and economic perspective'.

The Commission, which includes representatives from Australia, Japan, Taiwan, Korea, New Zealand and Indonesia, ruled that the 'catch' allocated to each nation be cut by 20 per cent — significantly less than the 50 per cent cut pushed by Australia.

Australia — which has the highest quota of tuna at 5265 tonnes per year — has elected to reduce its intake by 30 per cent. Southern bluefish tuna is Australia's largest fishing industry. The decision to reduce the quota has been greeted with outrage by some industry members. In particular, there is anger that Japan (which has the second highest quota of 3000 tonnes per year) will only be cutting its intake by the mandatory 20 per cent.

The timing of the decision has also been criticised, with industry stalwart Hagan Stehr characterising it as 'absolutely ludicrous'. The industry season recommences on 1 December 2009 and millions of dollars have already been spent in preparation.

As with the Federal Government's proposed Emissions Trading Scheme, the familiar (and often reductive) dichotomy of local jobs vs global environment is being played out.

There is resistance to the uncomfortable logic of the consequences of overfishing, partly as a result of dependence on the industry in particular geographic locations. Over 90 per cent of Australia's tuna catch comes from the waters surrounding Port Lincoln. Mayor Peter Davis predicted that 'lay-offs will occur' and called for the scientific report to be scrutinised by people other than 'bureaucrats and red-eyed greenies'.

Conversely, there is concern that the reduction will not even be effective. Fishery quotas are notably difficult to enforce in international waters where Greenpeace is effectively the only police. Greenpeace campaigners argue that pirate fishers are helping to drive the species toward extinction: it estimated a decade ago that almost a third of the global catch of southern bluefin tuna was illegal, unregulated or unreported.

It has been suggested that Japan in particular has taken 200,000 tonnes above its allowable catch over more than two decades. As with other marine issues — such as whaling — Australian sources express impatience with what is seen as intransigence from Japan.

It has been suggested that Japan benefited from the Commission's decision by having its quota increased (as a result of New Zealand selling its own increase) and escaping any penalisation for past overfishing.

Notwithstanding these concerns, the South Australian government has accepted the reduction in catch quota and undertaken to work cooperatively with Port Lincoln residents to minimise damage to the local fishing industry.

Even this reduction in the quota, however, may not be enough to save the species. Some suggest the southern bluefin tuna fishing industry simply has no sustainable future. Conservation activists now await the decision (due in April 2010) of Federal Environment Minister Peter Garrett whether to list the fish as an endangered species.

The southern bluefin tuna is an example that illustrates the broader problem of humanity's 'harvest' of the oceans. If you haven't already started, you might consider worrying about fish.

Greenpeace campaign: Defending the Pacific Ocean

Sarah BurnsideSarah Burnside is a solicitor with an interest in history, politics, native title and nationalism. She works at the Yamatji Marlpa Aboriginal Corporation (YMAC), which represents native title claim groups in the Murchison, Gascoyne and Pilbara regions of Western Australia. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of YMAC.

Topic tags: Southern Bluefin Tuna, Hagan Stehr, Peter Davis, Sarah Burnside, fishing, port lincoln



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Existing comments

The unsustainability of commercial fishing has been known, if not acknowledged, for at least half a century with the observed decline, then collapse, of most North Atlantic fisheries.

Recently, a report acknowledging the ephemerality of coastal urban development in the face of climate change, which after all has been common currency among climate scientists, was entitled 'The time to act is now'. The absence of response the opinion pages has been telling.

With all due respect to Mr Washer and colleagues, and to Ms Burnside, the time to start worrying was at least a quarter of a century ago.

At my mother's funeral, Father Hoad noted that 100% of us know we are going to die.

He added that only 5% of us believe it.

David Arthur | 29 October 2009

Sarah, thanks for the article. I wonder how athe fish are faring in the Indian Ocean that is rapidly being polluted with a gigantic oil spill for now hundreds of kilometre. No-one seems to be very concerned except those of who live in WA.
Rosemary Keenan | 29 October 2009

Perhaps the human race will bring about it's own demise.

Thank you Sarah, for warning us of the futility of worshipping money ,to the detriment of..people, relationships and our beautiful planet.

Do we need an almighty tragedy to jolt us out of the lethargy of self complacence?

I think not, they are in abundance.

We may need to be on the receiving end of a disaster.

Or do we need to have a belief system of service to others and to our planet.
Bernie Introna | 29 October 2009

Nice article.

I think Singer is wrong. There is no such thing as a conscientious omnivore.

Who says Tuna going extinct is a bad thing? If there are no Tuna left to exploit - murder - then I see that is a good thing.
Gordon | 29 October 2009

"If you haven't already started, you might consider worrying about fish", suggests Sarah Burnside. 'Might' and 'consider' and 'worrying' hardly sound like powerful calls to radical direct action!

I took some radical direct action today. I closed my bank account with the bank that won 'Choice Magazines' Shonky bank award two years in a row. From that very account each month were direct debited monies to Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth & M.S.F. equivalent to a wee bit more than ten percent of my annual income. I feel a bit sad about dumping Greenpeace: they sent me a really friendly birthday card each year, not to mention the good works they do (see above) policing pirate fishing operations.
So what precipitated this action of mine ? Observing all the grandparents I know jetting around the world like there is no tomorrow, holidaying here there and everywhere. Even the 'Greens' voters. No. Especially the 'Greens' voters!

As our local Green party person says, 'I think we are all stuffed'. 'We' being the human race.

I'm looking for an alternative cause to support folks. One that doesn't involve considering worrying about fish. Any suggestions?
DAVID JAY AITCH | 30 October 2009

I found Sarah's article to be constructive and balanced. But please let me sound a word of caution in two areas.

Peter Singer has no real interest in finding the right balance between fishing, farming and consumption of fish, sheep and cattle (and other animas used for food), so I would implore well-balanced people to start cultivating (pun intended) an acceptance of such agreements as the one discussed in the article - at the grasroots level, by starting conversations among friends, leading to a greater awareness that it will be the individual conscience that brings an achievable solution here.

For instance, do we always expect to have the very best of fish or cuts of fish on our plates? Is there a way of living with the seasons and what is available in that season? The consumer's conscience is what needs conversion, not the beuracacy, nor the rediculous notion of Singer's and Newkirk's concerning animal rights.

Secondly, what about our pets, in this case, cats in particular. I've just about converted my four year old cat from expecting the very best of fish and meat to being content with the dried food and little meat, the dried food being manufactured from the 'worst' of the cuts.
Fr Mick Mac Andrew Bombala-Delegate NSW | 31 October 2009

I appreciate the concerned comments of David Arthur and David Jay Aitch.

The final sentence was intended to be tongue-in-cheek; I had thought that the statistics discussed in the body of the piece made it clear that humanity no longer has (if ever it did) the luxury of ignoring the crisis situation of the world's oceans.

Sarah Burnside | 01 November 2009


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