Get your tuna while it’s hot (or cold)

The original text of this column in The Daily Maverick.

In 1968, the biologist Garret Hardin published “The Tragedy of the Commons”, a paper which argued for some unfortunate implications of the unrestricted exploitation of common resources. The primary example used by Hardin is a communal grazing pasture for cattle, where common use presents no problem until the maximum capacity of the pasture has been reached. After this point, overgrazing leads to the pasture becoming worthless to everyone, as it no longer has any capacity to provide food for the cattle. The problem, of course, is that each individual farmer is incentivised to maximise their own good. They therefore keep adding animals to the pasture, with little thought for the future, until the capacity is reached – thus ensuring the eventual destruction of the pasture.

There may well be a farmer or two who recognise the danger, and who exhort their fellows to keep the cow population in check. But so long as other farmers are adding to the cow-crowd, the pasture is doomed in any case – and you may as well get in a few extra meals for your bovine charges. To some extent, this makes you a free-rider, in that you would be exploiting the sense of responsibility shown by those who are trying to keep the pasture’s population under control by resisting the urge to overpopulate it. Most systems can accommodate a number of free-riders, but the tragedy of the commons makes the case that we are all compelled to be free riders. In summary, as Hardin notes, “each man is locked into a system that compels him to increase his herd without limit – in a world that is limited”.

It’s the same with tuna. In particular, bluefin tuna, which is in high demand due in part to our fondness for sushi – not to mention the fact that selling sushi at full-price (at least in Cape Town) seems to verge on being illegal. It is difficult to find a sushi vendor who is not offering half-price sushi, perhaps accompanied by half-price cocktails also – and these two discounts may well combine to make your consumption of tuna sushi more extravagant than it might otherwise have been.

The problem for sushi-lovers – as well as for greenies – is that the bluefin tuna is on the verge of extinction. Furthermore, I’m willing to go so far as to say that it’s pretty much guaranteed to become extinct, and that there’s nothing you can do about it.

To see why this is the case, consider first where tuna live: mostly in the high seas, which nobody owns. Furthermore, the oceans are a habitat that is incredibly difficult to police. The surface area is large, making it easier for fishing vessels to escape detection and capture. Furthermore, the financial burden of effective policing is prohibitive, in that an obscenely large number of patrol boats would be necessary to do the job properly.

Then, there is the inefficiency of current regulations around tuna fishing. At the last meeting of the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas – sometimes referred to as the International Conspiracy to Catch all Tuna – ICCAT again ignored the advice of their scientific advisors (to issue a total ban on bluefin fishing), and set the Atlantic bluefin catch quotas at 13,500 tonnes per year. This follows the precedent set at their 2008 meeting, where they set the quota at 22,000 tonnes rather than the advised 15,000 tonnes per year, which the advisors had determined to be the maximum sustainable yield.

To complicate the picture further, it’s worth noting that in many areas – notably the U.S. catchment areas – fishing boats have only been able to catch a fraction of the quota (10-15%) in any case. This is unsurprising, seeing as functional extinction of bluefin tuna is predicted by 2012. But note the absurdity here: the quota, at least in the U.S., is higher than the actual catch – meaning that the quota is not a limit, and provides no obstacle to the eventual extinction of bluefin tuna. As marine biologist Carl Safina points out, it’s “like limiting your pasta intake by reducing your limit from 10 pounds of spaghetti per meal to five pounds per meal”.

Reading the above, you might get the impression that I’m concerned about the fate of the bluefin tuna. Not really. In fact, the reason for pointing out the near-certainty of bluefin tuna’s extinction (with other tuna species not too far behind) is to remind you to eat all you can, before it’s too late. The commons of the high seas are not effectively governable, and tuna attracts sufficiently inflated prices that the fear of being caught exceeding your quota is easily outweighed by the profit motive. And then, there’s the absurdly high quota, which effectively means you can catch all the tuna you like.

The individual diner (or the individual fisherman) whose breast swells with virtue when they decline to eat or fish bluefin tuna, and give those who do a hard time, may end up regretting all the nigiri, and all the potential profit, they allowed to pass them by. Consider, instead, the model suggested by the intrepid folk of New Orleans, by now well used to privation in various forms. As the well in the Gulf of Mexico continues spilling oil – and as that oil gets combined with the chemicals BP is using to disperse the oil – many of the fertile breeding grounds for shrimp, crab and oyster that the citizens have come to regard as their pantries.

And now, with stock running low – and standing a significant chance of running out – one could respond by tempering your appetite, and trying to make the stocks last for as long as possible, or one could realise that you should get it while you can. “So you buy 20 pounds of shrimp and put it in your freezer,” said Mirta Valdes to the New York Times. “Tomorrow, there could be another storm and knock out all the electricity, and then you lose your stash anyway.”

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.