Mediterranean Tuna Fisheries: a Wretched Hive of Scum and Villainy

A series of articles started over at the Center for Public Integrity are shedding light on just how chaotic and lawless the bluefin tuna fishery in the Mediterranean Sea has become.  Though nominally managed through the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas, bluefin in the Mediterranean are constantly overharvested and it’s estimated that at least half of the catch goes straight into the black market.  There are many forces at work preventing the ICCAT from effectively managing the fishery, ranging from the massive Japanese market to the sheer number of countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea.

Particularly troublesome is the tuna ranching industry.  Tuna ranching is essentially the practice of capturing entire schools of bluefin tuna and keeping them in offshore pens to be fattened up until they are the perfect condition for the Japanese market.  Because almost all transactions involving tuna ranchers take place offshore, the industry is rampant with corruption.  Entire catches go unreported, tuna “spontaneously appear” in the pens, and oversight is a logistical nightmare when it exists at all.  The situation has gotten so mafia-esque that even Japanese importers are starting to become wary of the excesses.

If I may editorialize a little bit, bluefin tuna represent a fishery that almost beautifully illustrates the failure of the “market forces” that are often cited by those who wish to see less regulation as being perfectly adequate to manage fisheries.  As bluefin become rarer they become more valuable, and therefore more expensive and resource-intensive methods for catching them are justified.  Rest assured, the last bluefin tuna will make whoever catches it filthy rich, not that that’s any comfort to the tuna themselves, the other marine species that associate with tuna, or the countless fishing communities that are forced to fold up as the source of their livelihood literally disappears off the face of the earth.

What can you do to help put a stop to this behavior?  First off, vote with your stomach and your wallet: avoid eating bluefin steak or sashimi.  Even if, like me, you find it virtually impossible to totally eliminate all tuna from your diet, there are more sustainable options and your body will thank you for sparing it the mercury.  Also, check out these info pages on bluefin tuna the ICCAT from the Pew Charitable Trust to keep track of their actions involving the upcoming ICCAT meeting.  Here’s hoping it delivers better news than that CITES debacle.


  1. Torbjörn Larsson, OM · November 9, 2010

    Yeah, it’s sad.

    that almost beautifully illustrates the failure of the “market forces” that are often cited by those who wish to see less regulation as being perfectly adequate to manage fisheries.

    I’m not good at economic theory, but surely that almost beautifully illustrates an absurd contradiction – it is the need to regulate that market that “makes the problem”, as seen by the market, in the first place.

    I assume that a free market on a bounded resource should run up against the tragedy of the commons, not the tragedy of the mafia. Not that that makes the tuna any happier. 🙁

    • Chuck · November 9, 2010

      Thanks for the comment. I’m not much of an economist myself, I’m basically just calling it like I see it based on what I’ve read and observed. I think it would be really interesting to get an economist’s point of view on the bluefin tuna fishery.

  2. Southern Fried Scientist · November 9, 2010

    You are just nailing the star wars title’s this week.

    • Chuck · November 9, 2010

      The plan is to see how many posts in a row I can have with a Star Wars reference in the title.

      • WhySharksMatter · November 9, 2010

        You don’t think you can keep it up all year? I find your lack of faith disturbing.

      • John Carroll · November 9, 2010

        keep that up… im not a fan much of mos eisly spaceport or the tuna fishery…

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