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.
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.
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…