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Bluefin Tuna Endangered by Overfishing

Predatory fish are at the top of the ocean food chain. They help keep the balance of marine life in check. Without their eating habits, an overabundance of smaller organisms might affect the entire underwater ecosystem. Some scientists say such a shift could lead to a total collapse of the oceans. Yet so far, those in charge of regulating international fisheries have done little to protect at least one endangered species.

Scientists say this species is on the brink of extinction… and it is all our fault.

"Nobody's free of blame in this game," said Kate Wilson.

Kate Willson is an investigative journalist who recently exposed what she says is a $4-billion, black market trade in the sale of bluefin tuna.

"Scientists tell us that when a top predator like bluefin or another big fish is depleted, that will affect the entire ecosystem," she said. "Scientists say you better get used to eating jellyfish sashimi and algae burgers if you let these large fish become depleted - because they anchor the ecosystem."

Ecosystems are how living things interact with their environments and each other. Scientists agree they can change dramatically if a link disappears from the food chain.

Government officials and members of environmental groups met in Paris in mid-November to discuss fishing regulations that may affect all life on Earth. Sue Lieberman is Director of International Policy with the Pew Environment Group: a Washington-based, non-profit agency. She says the bluefin is in jeopardy.

"The fish is in worse shape than we thought, and that's why we're calling for the meeting of this commission to suspend this fishery ... to put on the brakes and say, 'let's stop," said Sue Lieberman. "Let's stop mismanaging and start managing the right way to ensure a future for this species.'"

Both Lieberman and Willson say that greed, corruption and poor management of fishing quotas brought us to this point.

"The quotas are designed to let fish recover, but quotas are more than scientists recommend, but even within quotas, there's consistent lack of enforcement, fraud, fish being traded without documents to the point where it's a multibillion dollar business that will cause the depletion of an incredible species," said Lieberman.

Willson says that fishing the bluefin to near-extinction followed increased Japanese demand for fresh sushi - starting in the 1970s and 80s. And - fishing practices that target the two primary regions in which blue fin spawn: the Gulf of Mexico and the Mediterranean Sea.

"You don't need a PhD in fisheries to know that's really not very smart," said Sue Lieberman. "If you want the species to continue into the future, you don't take them when they come to breed."

And that practice shines light on a bigger problem.

"Ninety per cent of all large fish - it's estimated - have been depleted," said Kate Wilson. "Bluefin is just a bellwether for what's happening to what's left of the world's large fish."

"We're not saying there should be no fishing, but we are saying there should be no fishing like that," said Lieberman. "This isn't single individuals with a pole and a line; this isn't recreational fishermen; this is massive, industrial scale fishing.
Governments can change this; this isn't an environmental threat that we throw up our hands and there's nothing to do about it."

"If countries really want to protect the remaining stocks of bluefin, they have to get serious about enforcing the rules and listening to their scientists when they set catch limits," said Wilson.

"Management of fish species on the high seas isn't just about making sure people have nice seafood when they go to a restaurant; it's about the very future of our planet," continued Lieberman. "And we have to get management of the oceans correct and we can't keep … and governments can't keep acting like we'll take care of that next year. We'll worry about making money in the short term, we'll listen to the fishing industry; we'll worry about the ocean & the environment later. We don't have that luxury."

The Chief Counselor's office for the Fisheries Agendy of Japan did not return VOA's requests for an interview. And while international delegates recently voted to adopt new legislation limiting the fishing of some kinds of sharks, they voted to lower the fishing quotas for bluefin tuna by only 4 percent.

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    Arash Arabasadi

    Arash Arabasadi is an award-winning multimedia journalist with a decade of experience shooting, producing, writing and editing. He has reported from conflicts in Iraq, Egypt, the Persian Gulf and Ukraine, as well as domestically in Ferguson, Missouri, and Baltimore, Maryland. Arash has also been a guest lecturer at Howard University, Hampton University, Georgetown University, and his alma mater, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He lives in Washington, D.C., with his wife Ashley and their two dogs.