Blurred lines in New York City governance: whose job is it to save our seas?

**This is a guest blog post, by Dr. Megan Bailey, postdoctoral researcher at Wageningen University, working in the Best Tuna Research Project. 

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Tuna catch, The Philippines. This one of Skipjack Tuna. All images: Megan Bailey, unless specified.

The oceans are in trouble; this is nothing new. Their health is plagued by plastics, pollution, acidification, and overfishing. While many fish species have been overfished, or are currently subject to overfishing, the Bluefin tuna is probably the most iconic of all overfished fish.  But whose job is it to save our seas – or more specifically, our Bluefin? Should we look to governments to ward off overfishing or to consumers to eat more consciously? To counter over-consumption, NYC Councilman Alan Maisel, proposed that NYC ban the sale of Bluefin tuna, suggesting that it is city’s job to promote conservation.

Pacific Bluefin Tuna Image: Gerick Bergsma 2010/ Marine Photobank
Pacific Bluefin Tuna
Image: Gerick Bergsma 2010/ Marine Photobank

While nation states are recognized by international law as the stewards of their seas, and are mandated to cooperate with other countries to conserve Bluefin populations, they have, by and large, failed to do so. Even if a country enacts unilateral conservation measures on its own fishing fleets, it can still import that product from other countries – unless a species is listed under CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) which prohibits its international trade. In 2010, governments had the chance to add Atlantic Bluefin to CITES, but those opposing the listing, such as Canada and Japan, argued it was not a trade issue; rather they delegated conservation responsibility to regional management bodies.

If national governments are not the ones to save our seas – despite their legal responsibility to do so – should it fall to consumers? A plethora of eco-labels have emerged for fish and fish products. Sustainability labels and certifications such as the Aquaculture Stewardship Council, Friend of the Sea, and most notably the Marine Stewardship Council all seek to convey environmental information to consumers, offering the chance to vote with grocery money. In theory, if consumers really do have agency in determining production practices, more sustainable harvesting will follow. The results are mixed: scientists are critical about the impact of such niche products for sustainability, and the ethics behind some certification schemes’ practices. Mr. Maisel’s initiative is a hybrid of the government versus consumer debate. Cities are arising as innovative hubs of environmental governance: banning or limiting plastic bag use in grocery stores, plastic water bottles in city buildings, and the sale of shark fin soup at restaurants. Were NYC to legislate Bluefin sales, it is akin to government regulation. Yet it is regulation geared at consumption, not geared at production.

What may be most interesting in this suggested ban on Bluefin by local government authorities, is that this alleviates restaurants interested in sustainability from succumbing to the prisoner’s dilemma. In other words, if any NYC restaurant singularly decided to stop selling Bluefin tuna, it may face adverse consequences as consumers seeking succulent sashimi would take their business elsewhere. Because of this likely first-mover loss, no restaurant would opt to commit to sustainability and over-consumption continues: the prisoner’s dilemma ensues. With a citywide regulation in effect, no individual restaurant must shoulder the risk.  Image from: Chopsticks NY
What may be most interesting in this suggested ban on Bluefin by local government authorities, is that this alleviates restaurants interested in sustainability from succumbing to the prisoner’s dilemma. In other words, if any NYC restaurant singularly decided to stop selling Bluefin tuna, it may face adverse consequences as consumers seeking succulent sashimi would take their business elsewhere. Because of this likely first-mover loss, no restaurant would opt to commit to sustainability and over-consumption continues: the prisoner’s dilemma ensues. With a citywide regulation in effect, no individual restaurant must shoulder the risk.
Image: Chopsticks NY

So whose job is it anyway to save our seas: should we rely on governments or on consumer consciousness? International law mandates national governments the responsibility and power; until now though they have failed to exercise that power. Conversely, the small impact of sustainably certified seafood via eco-labels remains limited. In and of itself, the banning of Bluefin in NYC restaurants is unlikely to have any impact on Bluefin populations. However, what it may do is trigger change by pushing this hybrid option onto other cities’ sustainability agendas. It may also start a discussion around conspicuous consumption and the extinction vortex: that we consume animal products to convey status or wealth, and that the more rare the species becomes, the more valuable its consumption becomes. For food items from these particular species, if countries fail to agree to a CITES listing, countering conspicuous consumption may have to be spearheaded by cities. While the line between whether governments or consumers should save our seas is blurred, the challenges facing our oceans are crystal clear. Something has to be done. And a new role for city governance emerges…

Bluefin Tuna includes three different species – the Pacific, Southern and Atlantic. Any of which could end up on your plate. Bluefin are prized for their velvety red flesh that lends itself exquisitely to being eaten raw as sashimi. High-end restaurants in New York and other cities serve Bluefin as a delicacy, and food connoisseurs flock to taste a piece of Heaven while it’s still here on earth – or in the ocean as it were.
Bluefin Tuna includes three different species – the Pacific, Southern and Atlantic. Any of which could end up on your plate. Bluefin are prized for their velvety red flesh that lends itself exquisitely to being eaten raw as sashimi. High-end restaurants in New York and other cities serve Bluefin as a delicacy, and food connoisseurs flock to taste a piece of Heaven while it’s still here on earth – or in the ocean as it were.
When discussing international trade of tuna or other food products, there is also the “product versus process” issue: a country can specify the quality of the food product, but not the process by which it is produced. This means that particular fishing methods (e.g. use of specific hook types, bycatch of other marine species) that may seem unsustainable are not reason enough to ban importation of a given fish product. Image: Bluefin tuna in Tskiji Market, taken by Mike Markovina/Marine Photobank
When discussing international trade of tuna or other food products, there is a “product versus process” issue: a country can specify the quality of the food product, but not the process by which it is produced. This means that particular fishing methods (e.g. use of specific hook types, bycatch of other marine species) that may seem unsustainable are not reason enough to ban importation of a given fish product.
Image: Bluefin tuna in Tskiji Market, taken by Mike Markovina/Marine Photobank
This blog post was written by guest blogger, Dr. Megan Bailey. Dr. Bailey received her PhD from the University of British Columbia Fisheries Centre in 2012. She is currently a postdoctoral researcher at Wageningen University’s Environmental Policy Group, in the Netherlands. Her research focuses on how the incentives that states and markets offer can help govern sustainability of fisheries, through the lens of cooperation. For more information see her blog or the project website: besttuna.org / Twitter: @BESTTuna2
This post was written by Dr. Megan Bailey. She received her PhD from the University of British Columbia Fisheries Centre in 2012, and is currently a postdoctoral researcher at Wageningen University’s Environmental Policy Group, in the Netherlands. Her research focuses on how the incentives that states and markets offer can help govern sustainability of fisheries, through the lens of cooperation. For more information see her blog or the project website: besttuna.org / Twitter: @BESTTuna2
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