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Amid all the noise and madness going on in the world right now, perhaps you missed a small but significant bit of news from three days ago. A small news story about a very big fish. A fish that is currently at risk of total economic extinction: the Pacific Bluefin Tuna. A petition by scientists and conservation groups to afford the species protection under the US Endangered Species Act was denied on Tuesday by the Trump Administration. The reason such a seemingly inconsequential story carries with it tremendous weight is largely because this recent defeat is just another in a long series of attempts to save this species, and we are running out of time.
You may be asking yourself, “why should I care about this?” It’s a fair question…after all, it’s only a fish, right? The truth is, there are very few of you who would willingly turn a blind eye to the killing of the last White Rhinoceros on earth, arguing instead that an animal as large and majestic as this deserves to be around for generations so that your grandchildren can enjoy it and maybe if they are lucky enough, travel to an African country to see one in the wild. In fact, to many of us, all the big beautiful and endangered mammals on earth: whales, Panda Bears, elephants, tigers, gorillas, Polar Bears (and the list goes on) are worth saving. These animals have been dubbed “charismatic megafauna” …a fancy way of saying that they are large and popular. Every time you (or anyone you know) has ever donated money to an organization attempting to save one of these creatures, you are establishing an existence value for them…the amount of money that the mere existence of this organism is worth to you.
While conservation organizations rely on existence values to work towards saving an endangered species, the fact is that every one of these animals is worth far more from the standpoint of their role in an ecosystem. Elephants keep forests in check by removing small trees and undergrowth, tigers maintain herbivore populations and whales have been shown to mediate entire oceanic processes. If we lose these species, the habitats in which they live will cease to exist the way we now know them. Populations of other species will crash or explode as a gaping hole is torn in the fabric of the food web.
So, yeah…it’s a fish…and maybe it’s not as pretty as a Bengal Tiger or as charismatic as a Panda Bear…but the bluefin tuna is a magnificent animal in its own right. Growing to over 1,000 pounds, these powerful fish can accelerate faster than a sports car. As apex predators exerting tremendous control over the ocean ecosystem, they use this lightning speed to catch prey and their huge torpedo-shaped bodies propel them across entire ocean basins during migration. Oh, and did I mention that they are warm-blooded? Bluefin tuna are just plain cool.
There are three species of bluefin tuna, and all three have started their swim towards extinction. The Southern Bluefin Tuna is recognized as critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, meaning there is a 50% chance the species will be extinct within the next 10-years. The two bluefin species that find their way onto the plate here in the United States are not faring much better. The Pacific Bluefin Tuna (the species just denied listing under the US Endangered Species Act) is listed as Vulnerable to extinction and the Atlantic Bluefin Tuna (the species you most likely consume here in Rhode Island) is listed as Endangered by the international conservation community. With less than 4% of their populations remaining, it is doubtful that these three species will be around to impress your grandchildren.
Some endangered species have relatively small home ranges (think bamboo forests and Pandas or Mountain Gorillas and mountain tops) and don’t undergo multi-thousand-mile migrations. For these beleaguered animals, conservation efforts need to be directed at very targeted threats: those of poaching or habitat loss. But, how do you save a fish that swims 6,000 miles across our oceans each year and is caught by dozens of countries, even though 97% of their population has been fished out of existence and no domestic effort is being made to stop the slaughter? Well, as a citizen of the United States, you have been blessed with a quality of life that most residents of other countries desperately strive for. And as the privileged citizen of a highly industrialized and technologically advanced society, your decisions as a consumer matter…a lot. What you spend your money on drives markets the world over. And when you sit down at a restaurant and place an order, you drive your local economy as well. Don’t let anyone tell you that the power of one doesn’t exist, because that is simply not true. If the federal government does nothing to lend a hand to a struggling species, the duty falls squarely with you.
Recently, a throng of restaurants on Aquidneck Island began offering bluefin tuna on their menus, despite the fish’s rarity. It is important that these restaurants are not rewarded for this decision. When you visit a restaurant that serves bluefin tuna, such as Mizu Japanese Steakhouse in Middletown or Salvation Café and the Clarke Cooke House in Newport, you are supporting the harvest of this endangered species…regardless of whether you order the fish or not. In 2017, there is little excuse for a restaurant to claim ignorance when they serve bluefin. The plight of the species has been well documented for years and no one in the restaurant business (or fishing business for that matter) can pull the “I didn’t know” card. Believe me, these restaurants know of the current state of the fish and serve it regardless…arguing that the science is flawed. The fact is, they can serve these fish for a higher price because of their scarcity. And they take this gamble that could potentially increase their bottom line because they know the average consumer is unfamiliar with the fish or its current predicament. This is where you come in.
You may have the feeling that you can accomplish very little as a US citizen in the current political environment we face. And, in many cases you are correct. But, here is a very real (and very easy) action you can take that will have a measurable impact. Talk to the restaurant’s manager or chef…tell them why you are disheartened by their decision to serve bluefin. If you notice bluefin on the menu, take your business elsewhere. Demand that restaurants place compassion over profit. If only a handful of people did this, they would stop serving the fish. No business wants to see an economic loss caused by the products they sell. Try to get the owner or chef to commit to sustainable practices by signing a pledge to discontinue offering the fish. By taking bluefin tuna off the menu, a restaurant is estimated to save one fish per week from being killed. That may not sound like much, but considering only 3% of the total stock of bluefin remains in the sea, every fish counts.
Just because the wheels in Washington are slow to turn (if they turn at all), doesn’t mean that decisive actions can’t be made. You can be the vehicle of change in your hometown. It may seem insignificant to boycott a local restaurant and it can certainly be polarizing. But, if you act out of compassion you will always be doing the right thing. And you can credit yourself with giving a struggling species a fighting chance.