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The End Of Sashimi?

Over the last ten years, as sushi has gone from niche delicacy to global industry, the world's bluefin tuna stocks have been suffering accordingly—especially in the Mediterranean, home to 90 percent of the world's bluefin. Lately, though, those tuna fisheries have been so decimated that many marine scientists and conservationists are warning that the bluefin could go extinct within five years. At that point, let's just hope people enjoy horsemeat rolls. No doubt shuddering at the prospect, officials from around the world met last week in Marrakesh to try and hammer out a deal to limit bluefin catches and prevent the population from collapsing. Unfortunately, according to Time's Vivienne Walt, it didn't go well at all:

Officials from the 46 members of the International Consortium for the Conservation of the Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) had spent days behind closed doors in the Moroccan city of Marrakesh, battling over a rescue plan for the species. Several smaller ICCAT members such as Guatemala and Panama had initially backed a proposal supported by the U.S. and environmental groups to halt all bluefin fishing for nine months of the year, and to crack down hard on violators. But European officials persuaded them to instead adopt a reduced quota of 22,000 tons in 2009, and 19,950 tons in 2011.

That certainly represents a sharp drop from last year's estimated global sales of 61,000 tons of bluefin tuna — and even from this year's official quota of about 29,000 tons — but it's still far above the 15,000 tons that marine scientists advise is the limit that can be fished without without the species becoming extinct.

"The meeting's been a complete disaster," says Sergi Tudela, of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). "The measures that have been adopted will drive the bluefin tuna to collapse." Not so, say European officials, who contend that their quota plan was the best deal possible, in part because it won the backing of Arab countries on the Mediterranean, who perceive ICCAT as controlled by the world's major fishing powers — the United States, Canada, Japan and Europe.

That's a weird non sequitur from those European officials—just because something was the best deal possible doesn't mean it will prove effective. Fishing quotas are actually a sound idea—in fact, as Rob Inglis has argued on this blog, restricting the fishing season to just three months a year, as many green groups had proposed, isn't always the most effective way of preventing overfishing. But, of course, for quotas to work their magic, you have to actually set the cap at sustainable levels, which doesn't appear to be the case with the Marrakesh deal.

That's not surprising: It's hard to imagine Mediterranean fishing commissioners have the stomach to impose draconian limits right now, tossing even more fishermen out of work and further reducing tax revenue during a nasty recession. Still, it's a problem as far as the bluefin's concerned. So environmental groups are shifting to Plan B, which involves trying to get the fish listed as an endangered species and staging boycotts against restaurants or stores that stock bluefin tuna, similar to the ongoing global campaign against ivory, which has been moderately successful. Another option is to see if it's possible to farm bluefin tuna in a sustainable manner, which would take pressure off wild stocks—though as Sarah Parsons of Plenty magazine reported recently, there's plenty of controversy surrounding this approach, too.

--Bradford Plumer