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Wednesday, Dec. 26, 2007

OUR PLANET EARTH

DELVING BENEATH THE HEADLINES

Wrapping up the year with dollops of whale and tuna


With Christmas behind us and New Year's less than a week away, this month's column combines a bit of yearend desk clearing with some suggestions for belated stocking stuffers.

Bluefin tuna
Bluefin tuna that have migrated from Japan's coastal waters are seen here in spring, when they are caught off Mexico and California — frequently from "farm" pens — before being airfreighted back as meat to Japan. AP PHOTO

But fair warning: These gifts are not eco-treats or recyclable necessities; they are downloadable PDFs for the environmentalists on your tardy-presents list who love reading about what is behind the headlines. Or in this case, what is beneath the headlines in the largely uncharted depths of the seas.

Admittedly, these two issues each deserve a full column, but there are just never enough columns in a year. So, rather than getting even further behind, I'm resorting to a Japanese-style yearend cleaning so that I can begin 2008 with a delusory clean slate.

Without a doubt, the biggest environmental attention-grabber this month has been the U.N. Conference on Climate Change in Bali, Indonesia, that wrapped up last week. Because the Kyoto Protocol will end its official life in 2012, there is necessary hubbub surrounding the drafting of a new framework for reducing greenhouse-gas emissions beyond 2012.

But the climate debate is destined to go on for months and years, and this month, behind all the media flurry surrounding Bali, two reports came out that should be of particular interest to marine-issue watchers in Japan.

The first takes a look at whether whaling nations, Iceland in particular, are justified in calling for whale culls in order to protect fish stocks; and the second is a report from Greenpeace that outlines a "rescue plan" for threatened tuna fisheries and calls on Japan to take the lead role.

Fewer whales, more fish?

"Iceland, Whaling and Ecosystem-based Fishery Management" is the title of a report published under the auspices of the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society (WDCS), authored by Australian Peter Corkeron. Some of the scientific discussion is a bit slow going, but stick with it and you'll find some very interesting observations on the politicization of fisheries policies in Iceland and Norway.

Corkeron explains how a 2004 Norwegian White Paper on marine mammal management, and recent Icelandic government pronouncements in favor of killing whales to protect commercial fish populations, are based on incomplete research.

His own research, and that of others, comes to quite a different conclusion.

"There is no evidence that culling marine mammals could enhance fisheries output. The best evidence available suggests that current levels of marine mammals' predation on commercial fish are trivial when compared with fisheries. Those who call for culls seem to believe that an 'ecosystem approach' to fisheries implies tinkering with some species in marine ecosystems, rather than managing fisheries with an aim to restoring ecosystem health," writes Corkeron.

His report is especially timely because the whaling nations often take a convoy approach to policies, and this same argument, that whales are eating our fish, has gained some popular currency in Japan, too.

Before Japan embarrasses itself with policies based on incomplete science, its bureaucrats might want to read Corkeron's report and avoid the mistakes of their prowhaling colleagues on the Atlantic side.

To download this PDF, visit the WDCS (wdcs.org) and input the name Corkeron into the search function. When the page comes up, select the article at the top of the page.

Tuna out of a can

After whales, tuna have earned Japan the most notoriety on the high seas. Japan now consumes about 30 percent of the world's tuna catch of more than 600,000 tons annually, according to Greenpeace. Add to this a recent U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization warning that wild fisheries will collapse by 2050 unless fishing quotas are enforced, and it is not surprising that the world is looking to Japan for leadership in tuna conservation efforts.

Whether Japan is ready to lead is a different story.

The government has admitted that last year Japan took a third more southern bluefin tuna than its quota — and that quota has now been cut in half for the next four years.

The cheating doesn't inspire confidence, but admitting wrongdoing is a step forward. Moreover, imports are now down almost a quarter from last year and prices are rising.

So perhaps Japan is on the right track. But is it wise enough to consider the advice of a longtime adversary?

Japan's government abhors Greenpeace for its high-profile protests over the years that have targeted Japan's environmental excesses. Nevertheless, the organization's report on tuna offers a measured critique of Japan's role in tuna fishing, and outlines a thoughtful plan for Japan's rehabilitation as a top tuna fisher, consumer and aid provider to coastal and island states.

First, of course, Japan must admit that the tuna industry is highly unsustainable and headed for disaster. Fishing fleets from Japan, the European Union, Taiwan, South Korea and the United States — as well as China and the Philippines — scour the globe pursuing highly migratory tuna stocks.

"To keep fishing year-round, industrial tuna fleets must pursue these stocks . . . into the waters of coastal states. To do so legally they rely on what are known as fisheries access agreements, often negotiated on their behalf by their governments. [FAAs] are highly controversial. In their worst manifestation they are a form of government extortion. Powerful fishing nations use their financial clout to pressure developing coastal states to exchange access to their fish resources for cash payments or even aid," reports Greenpeace.

"There is no end in sight to the global demand for tuna or to the pressure being brought to bear on developing coastal states to provide foreign fleets with access to their fisheries resources," notes the report, titled "Taking Tuna out of the Can: Rescue Plan for the World's Favourite Fish."

But a change in Japanese policy could save the world's tuna.

Greenpeace is calling on Japan to lead conservation efforts on two counts: by helping coastal and island states to develop their own sustainable fisheries based on more domestic, small-scale fishing; and by increasing domestic handling and processing by these states. This will require that foreign, industrial fleets shrink their catches — but of course, tuna sustainability has its costs.

The report also calls on Japan to decouple fisheries aid from access to fish, and to replace FAA with principled, fair-access agreements and joint venture supply agreements that are unequivocally based on comprehensive impact studies.

In perhaps the bitterest pill of all, though, Greenpeace is also calling for a 50 percent cut in catches to protect and rejuvenate worldwide tuna stocks.

Such a cut will have a dramatic impact on the tuna industry, and no country will hang up its nets and fishing tackle willingly.

Nevertheless, cuts are inevitable if we want to ensure the survival of tuna stocks. Consequently, all of us today, beginning with the Japanese, will have to consume less — and pay more for what we do consume.

To access this report, visit greenpeace.org/usa/press-center/ and scroll down to Latest Reports.

So, with my desk a bit clearer, there is now space for the stories of 2008. In the meantime, happy reading and happy holidays!

Notes or queries? Stephen Hesse can be reached at stevehesse@hotmail.com


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