Cod and Tuna: overfishing in Canada and the Mediterranean

"Sashimi Meal With Tuna And Bass" by artur84 at
“Sashimi Meal With Tuna And Bass” by artur84 at

This week I had my students watch a documentary, The Cost of Sushi, which describes how overfishing is endangering the tuna stocks in the Mediterranean. The reasons why are familiar from past disasters: the real needs of local communities and fisherman, the development of new fishing technologies and factory ships, the demand from foreign markets, the vast sums of money involved, and the uncertainty about how much fishing the stocks can actually take. In the case of the Mediterranean, what is clear by the end of the documentary is that much of the problem lies not only with the level of the quotas themselves, but also with the vast amount of illegal fishing that takes place. While the documentary clearly shows that huge amounts of tuna is being taken illegally -which environmental activists document both by tracing ships, and by genetically sampling tuna in markets- at no point are any corporations or individuals shown being held accountable. Given that a single tuna has sold for $1,76 million dollars (the current record), and the size of the waters involved, its easy to understand the difficulties that fisheries inspectors and activists face. Globally, the Atlantic blue fin tuna and Southern blue fin tuna are, respectively, endangered and critically endangered. Sadly, it seems that the local fishing communities, which have relied on this resource for many generations, will be the ones to suffer.

This story is all too familiar. In Atlantic Canada cod stocks were scientifically managed into oblivion, a story told in a wonderful short book by Mark Kurlansky titled Cod. This well-written work of popular history tells the story of cod’s crucial role in North Atlantic economies, which led to the Cod Wars of the twentieth century. While some nations -such as Iceland and Norway- were able to successfully manage this resource, the Canadian government failed. Because cod fishing was so important to communities in Newfoundland, the government heavily supported cod fishing, as Kurlansky described: “By the 1990s, the Canadian government was spending three dollars on fisheries for every one dollar those fisheries earned.” In the end, the cod stocks collapsed in the 1990s, and have failed to return to healthy levels for multiple reasons. When Kurlansky’s book was published in 1997, fisherman in Newfoundland were still looking forward to the opening of the fishery. Nearly twenty years later cod populations still do not show signs of a solid recovery, which has had a huge impact not only on fishing communities, but also other species -such as whales- which have relied upon the cod as a food source. Now this social, economic and environmental disaster is being repeated with another fish in other waters. Combined these two works make a powerful argument for a better international mechanism to regulate global fisheries. And Garrett Hardin’s article, “The Tragedy of the Commons,” remains as relevant today as when it was first published in 1968, for its ability to explain the economic origins of environmental disasters.

The current Canadian government is currently receiving intense criticism from scientists for what is widely perceived as an effort to cut back on government funding of environmental science, most recently by eliminating excellent libraries operated by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans. See Greene’s article on this in the Huffington Post. Andrew Nikiforuk’s piece in the Tyee is also well-worth reading. Want to read more posts on the environment? Click here.

Shawn Smallman, Portland State University



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