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At what price tuna?

Monday, July 20, 2009

By Olga Naidenko, EWG Senior Scientist

How much does a can of tuna cost to an average shopper in a U.S. supermarket? Something like 33 cents a can, if you look hard enough and search for a good sale. Not a bad deal - if you only count the sticker price.

Now let's think a little bigger. Take, say, the U.S. as a country. What would the cost for that same tuna can be on a national level? It turns out that the numbers there are far from economical. Most tuna in the U.S. comes from the still plentiful, yet rapidly depleting tuna fisheries in the Western and Central Pacific Ocean.

Pacific fishing areas are used by fishing fleets from many countries: Japan, China, Taiwan, Koran, Phillipines, Spain, and, of course, the United States. To have a right to fish in these regions, distant fishing fleets and their governments pay access fees to the island nations in whose territorial waters tuna stocks are moving.

We (you) pay $18M annually to put fishing boats on the water Every year the U.S. government pays a stunning $18 million simply for the right to put a mere 40 (40!!) American tuna fishing boats into the Western and Central Pacific Ocean, under the so-called U.S. Treaty signed with 16 Pacific island nations.

While the number of fishing boats may change from year to year (though the access fee does not), even at the highest number (40 tuna vessels on the ocean), that still adds up to $450,000 perboat. Now that's an example of government subsidies at an amazing scale.

Of course these millions don't appear out of thin air. Rather it's your money - taxpayer dollars that are generously disbursed by the government to support the tuna fleet.

The actual amount of the U.S. fishing subsidies is likely to be much higher, according to the ground-breaking research published by EWG earlier this year.

It costs a lot more than $$ The problem is by no means limited to economic cost, either. Fishing subsidies contribute to keeping too many fishing boats on the water, which - surprise! - results in overfishing and severe depletion of the fishing stocks. Soon, those "33 cents a tuna can"-times will be gone. Instead, tuna products are on their way to disappearing from the supermarket shelves as tuna are literally fished to the bottom.

We should shift subsidies to save tuna As Renee Sharp, EWG's California Office Director and a lead author of EWG's fishing subsidies studies study, described in a recent Enviroblog post, "the U.S. and the world are going to have to shift subsidies to forms that enhance fishery conservation rather than depletion."

This commonsense conclusion appears to elude the government bureaucrats in charge of negotiating fishing agreements with Pacific island nations. In fact, as reported last week by Christopher Pala in Environmental Science and Technology, the U.S. is actually planning to increase its tuna fishing, thus accelerating depletion of the entire fishery.

According to the news story:

The U.S. is coming under harsh criticism from Pacific island nations and conservationists for ramping up its catch of bigeye tuna at a time when scientists are calling for an immediate 30% reduction. By invoking a treaty it signed with 16 Pacific island nations, the U.S. has declared itself immune from a reduction in catch that fisheries scientists say is long overdue. In contrast, other nations are preparing for 10% per year cutbacks starting in January 2010.

Do you think U.S. taxpayers should pay buckets of money to help speed the demise of the world's last great stocks of tuna? We really don't think so. In fact, we wrote a full report on the issue earlier this year.

We applaud Environmental Science and Technology for calling attention to this important issue. Fisheries conservation is an essential, urgent need, so that our children will be able to actually try what tuna tastes like rather than only knowing Charlie the Tuna as a cartoon character. Not to mention there are 1 or 2 other things to spend taxpayer money on these days.

[Thanks to Flickr & Secret Seasons for the pic]

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