The Ecphorizer

Sorry, Charley ...Charley?
Gareth Penn

Issue #30 (February 1984)

Fishing in the troubled waters of the Tuna industry.

Late in 1980, a funny thing happened on the high seas between Guam end New Guinea. A 20-foot motorboat which had drifted 1300 miles westward from the Gilbert Islands, where its engine had failed two months before, was sighted by a vessel called the Tifaimoana

...They eat what they can, and what they can't, they can...

which is Samoan for "Pearl of the Deep", and the survivors were rescued. But that wasn't the funny thing. The funny thing was that the Tifaimoana, a 320 foot tuna seiner, was based in San Diego, over 7,000 miles distant.

[quoteright]The U.S. tuna industry has fallen on hard times. Of all the tuna species, the U.S. consumer prefers albacore, and the catch of albacore has been declining in recent years. Most of the Latin American nations bordering the Eastern Pacific have declared 200-mile fishing zones, excluding U.S. tunaboats from their waters, where the U.S. tuna-fishing industry began 80 years ago. Farther out to sea, tuna fishing is regulated by the InterAmerican Tropical Tuna Commission. U.S. tunaboats receive a quota of the catch from the waters regulated by IATTC, which are known as CYRA ("Commission Yellowfin Regulatory Area"). Whenever a new country enters the waters of CYRA, the U.S. share of the catch is reduced accordingly.

Even farther to the west, where the Commission's writ does not run, fishing is dominated by the Japanese, who are the tuna-eatingest people on earth. In fact, about 40% of all the tuna caught anywhere wind up being eaten by Japanese consumers. They eat what they can, and what they can't they can; and what they can't can, they export - to the U.S., and at prices substantially below those charged by U.S. producers. And others are getting into the act in the Western Pacific as well: the latest entry in the U.S. tuna market sweepstakes is Thailand, whose tuna products retail here typically for about 20 cents a can less than U.S. brands.

Perhaps not so curiously, the two species of tuna preferred by Japanese consumers, bigeye and bluefin, are, like the albacore, declining as commercial species. While marine biologists employed by the governments that regulate the tuna fishery are searching for a natural cause to blame for the decline of the most important commercial species, there is a school of thought which attributes that decline precisely to the fact that those species are commercial, and that it is the overfishing of albacore, bluefin, and bigeye tuna that is leading to a population crash, which would, if it takes place, virtually eradicate those species as a commercial resource.

If international politics and biology weren't enough to contend with, the tuna industry also suffers, as do the rest of us, from the vicissitudes of the economy.

The price tag on a new tuna seiner is around $10 million. It costs about $350,000 to outfit a vessel for one cruise (about a third of that is for fuel alone). In most cases, crew members are paid by shares. On some cruises, one share can be worth as much as $24,000. On others, it may be worth as little as $36. That's not much to show for a trip lasting anywhere from seven to seventeen weeks. Boat owners have to pay the same high interest rates everybody else does. And all it takes is two bad cruises in a row to wipe out a fishing company. The used purse-seiner market in San Diego is glutted with second-hand 300-footers that are begging for buyers at a mere $3.5 million apiece.

It was inevitable that the American tuna fleet would seek new fisheries, far from the caprices of Colombia and Costa Rica, a place where the Tuna Commission was not dividing the pie up into ever-thinner slices. A major revolution in the tuna industry has been taking place for several years now, namely the migration of the fleet from Latin American waters and CYRA into the Southwest Pacific. At the time it picked up the hapless survivors from the wayward motorboat in 1980, the Tifaimoana was but one of twelve San Diego-based tunaboats operating in the waters between Guam and New Guinea. Given the price of fuel and the cost of interest, which must be paid all the time a boat is in the water, whether it is producing or not, it seems likely that within not very many years, the Tifaimoana and her sister ships will be based in Guam or in New Guinea (or at least in Hawaii), simply in order to be able to operate closer to the commercial resource on which their owners depend.

While the tuna fishing industry in the U.S. began shortly after the turn of the century, there wasn't much of a market for its product. It was not until the depths of the Great Depression that tuna sales rose asymptotically. It was a cheap substitute for the meat that millions of Americans could no longer afford to put on the table. Thanks to low prices and a good deal of shrewd advertising promotion, tuna producers were able to increase sales - and their catch - every year since 1933 (excepting a slight drop in production during the Second World War, when the tunaboats were pressed into service as auxiliary Navy vessels).

When America catches cold, the rest of the world sneezes. It was no different with tuna. As soon as it was perceived in other countries that Americans ate large quantities of the fish, they all wanted some, too. Soon the fleets of a dozen countries were scouring the high seas for tuna. And more are joining in the search every year.

As the total tuna catch increases, the commercially popular species decline in number first (Charley is not an albacore). The industry then uses promotional techniques to persuade consumers that they want another species which is more numerous. People with long memories recall that the Pacific sardine, which is what Monterey's Cannery used to be all about, went through a similar surge of consumer popularity during the Depression, only to disappear in the years immediately following the Second World War. And not so close to home, the Peruvian anchovy, which was heavily fished in South American waters as a source of cattlefodder for U.S. feedlots, crashed in the late 1960's. Tuna species are found all around the globe, and they are a very hardy fish; yet it seems likely that the same mechanism that killed off the Pacific sardine and the Peruvian anchovy with so little difficulty will just have a somewhat harder time doing the same thing to the tuna.

The pelagic fisheries are the last major example of the commercial exploitation of wildlife. Commercial exploitation of terrestrial species has all but stopped, principally because the commercial species ashore are no longer to be found anywhere but in preserves or zoos. I was once informed by a cab driver in San Diego that God put the whales on the earth "to be eaten, just like the cattle." Never mind that he probably would have found whale-meat repulsive (a friend of mine who has tried sperm whale tells me that it is the nastiest thing he ever tasted); the point is that there is a fundamental distinction between domesticated and wild animal species, and that distinction is care. Humans "raise" domestic species by bringing them together to breed, breeding them for superior physical characteristics; by providing them with food; by protecting them from predators; by inoculating them against disease. The chicken species will never be threatened by extinction.

We do none of this for wildlife species. The only effect that human activity has on animals like the tuna is a decrease in their numbers caused by killing. In theory, government-regulated killing (euphemized as "management") is supposed to reduce competition for the food supply, which in turn leads to a surge in the rate of reproduction. Hence, the more you fish for tuna, the more tuna there will be. It's a kind of cornucopia-effect, or biological perpetual motion.

"Management" of wildlife species is orchestrated by governments, sometimes collectively, as by the International Whaling Commission. But not one species of marine animal that is subject to "management" has ever prospered, and quite a few have turned up goners. The main reason appears to be that the scientists who are supposed to direct the management effort tailor their evidence to suit the needs of the industry which they regulate.

The symptoms are all in. The tuna industry has to range farther and farther afield to find the fish at all. The catch of the most popular species is declining, while overall fishing is up. It seems likely that tuna will soon go the way of other extinguished species. And Star-Kist may have to stop being so choosy. They may be lucky to land the likes of Charley. 

Zodiac Killer sleuth Gareth Penn fries other fish in this issue, as he dips his toes in the trouble waters of the tuna fishing industry.

More Articles by Gareth Penn

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