How the Cold War depleted our oceans and led to Japan’s $37,000 tuna

Blame the US for the world’s dwindling tuna stocks.
Blame the US for the world’s dwindling tuna stocks.
Image: Reuters/Tony Gentile
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Though the price one Tokyo sushi-maker paid for a Pacific bluefin tuna marks a sharp drop from recent peaks, $35,000 isn’t chump change. Given the species’ scarcity, it’s also not surprising. In Nov. 2014, it was re-classified as ”vulnerable,” meaning it’s in danger of extinction.

This scarcity isn’t just a tuna thing. Lax quotas and illegal fishing mean that stocks in every corner of the sea are disappearing at an unsustainable pace. Though many blame the “tragedy of the commons”—when self-interested behavior destroys a common good—the roots of the problem have a much more deliberate source: Cold War-era American foreign policy. That’s the case that historian Carmel Finley persuasively makes in her 2011 book, All the Fish in the Sea: Maximum Sustainable Yield and the Failure of Fisheries Management.

In the late 1940s, the US found itself “locked in a high-seas Cold War battle with the Soviet Union,” that suddenly put territorial fishing rights on the foreign policy agenda. At the same time, it was focused on guaranteeing the rights of ships, planes, submarines, and—yes—fishing boats to unfettered use of the world’s seas. This was partly because of American security priorities, but also because, as one of the world’s biggest fishing nations—and one of the few with industrial processing capabilities—the US also wanted to defend its access to the bounty of fish in poorer countries’ coastal waters.

That worry wasn’t merely hypothetical. Latin American countries were already extending territorial claims to drive out aggressive American tuna boats. As these and other tensions escalated, leaders realized they needed hammer out a way to manage fishing stocks.

In response, the US successfully championed the international adoption of “maximum sustainable yield” (MSY)—the most fish that could be caught before stocks started declining—as the basis for fishing regulation. MSY’s underlying premise is that catching and removing older fish actually helps populations, by limiting food competition. In effect, the doctrine held that since there was a naturally sustainable surplus of fish, rights to catch them couldn’t be restricted unless there was scientific proof of overfishing.

The US’s diplomatic coup also conveniently helped to preempt the need for an international regulatory arbiter with binding authority, since multilateral treaties seemed better suited to managing specific fishing stocks, with countries agreeing to quotas based on MSY calculations.

This MSY-based system is largely still intact today.

Why, then, have we failed miserably at preventing overfishing? The answer, argues Finley, is that MSY is unsound science. Though several European representatives pushed for more precautionary conservation efforts founded on documented cases of overfishing, the US’s focus on its own strategic goals saw it champion a metric that hadn’t even been tested, let alone proven. MSY also fails to account for complex ecosystem interactions or the population trend of individual species. The resulting imprecision makes scientists’ findings easy to dismiss.

Pacific bluefin tuna—the species that was sold in Tokyo today—are a sterling example. The stock is now but 4% what it was before fishing began, says Pew Charitable Trust. And yet only in the last few months have countries a party to multilateral tuna management bodies agreed to catch limits low enough that Pew’s experts think Pacific bluefin tuna might finally have a chance at recovery.