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One fish, two fish, red fish, SSMU fish

Where we’ve come in the fight against overfishing

Leonardo DiCaprio has never appeared on the cover of GQ hugging a bluefin tuna, but the magazine might want to start getting in touch with his agent. Like polar bears for global warming, bluefin tuna are quickly becoming a symbol of the environmental crisis developing in some major world fisheries. A high-priced commercial fish, bluefin populations around the world – particularly those in the Atlantic Ocean – are dropping to alarmingly low levels under the strain caused by overly generous fishing quotas. Greenpeace McGill is taking steps to make sure that sustainable fish options are provided on campus.

Atlantic bluefin tuna is divided into two major stocks – one based out of North American waters and the other one out of the Mediterranean Sea. A study sponsored by the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tuna (ICCAT) found that the population of Mediterranean fish of spawning-size (those capable of reproducing) had declined by 74.2 per cent since 1958. The situation was grimmer in the western stock, where an 82.4 per cent decline was observed since 1970.

“Even considering uncertainties in the assessment, continuing fishing at the 2007 fishing mortality rates is expected to drive the spawning stock biomass (SSB) to very low levels; i.e. to about 18 per cent of the SSB in 1970 and 6 per cent of the unfished SSB,” warned an ICCAT report on the state of the Mediterranean fishery in 2008.

At a summit of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) last month, the government of Monaco proposed a ban on the trade of bluefin tuna. The motion was defeated, 68 to 20, with 30 other countries abstaining. Canada was among those opposing the ban. CITES will meet again in three years’ time, where a fresh attempt may be put to a vote.

Bluefin may be far too expensive to be on the diet of your average university student, but everyone comes across a variety of endangered fish in everyday life. Atlantic salmon, prawns, Chinese tilapia – these are just some of the species found on the red list of endangered fishes compiled by SeaChoice, a Canadian non-governmental organization dedicated to promoting sustainable seafood programs.

Making sustainable choices requires paying attention, not only to the species of fish but also to its country of origin and the method used in its capture. The Pacific cod fishery along the coast of Alaska has been certified by the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), a non-profit organization whose mission is to recognize sustainable fishing practices; Atlantic cod, meanwhile, is listed as “vulnerable” by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.

Much has changed in the way that sustainable fishing is promoted at McGill since the start of the school year. At the Fall 2009 General Assembly (GA), Greenpeace McGill introduced a motion banning the sale of fish listed on the red list within the Shatner building. Although the GA lost quorum before the motion could be debated, the measure resurfaced at SSMU Council on November 12, 2009, where it was successfully passed.

Implementing the motion will require Greenpeace McGill to determine first the identity of all the fish sold by the cafeterias in Shatner, explains Sariné Willis-O’Connor, one of the students leading the campaign. Once that has been established, the club is responsible for providing SSMU with a list of suitable fish alternatives and specific vendors that could supply them.

“We should have the research done by the end of the summer, and then meet with the cafeteria managers sometime in September,” reports Willis-O’Connor.

While international governmental action appears to have stalled in the short term, consumers retain a good measure of control on the demand for red list fish. Avoiding the purchase of endangered species sends a market signal to fish suppliers and helps industries that have moved to sustainable fishing practices. The McGill community has taken a stand on this issue. Whether enough people will join to make a difference in the long-term health of the oceans will be the crucial test for the survival of fish like bluefin tuna.