As fishing techniques and equipment have become more advanced, fishermen have become more efficient at harvesting fish such as the bluefin tuna. Driven by the global demand for tuna, fishermen have pushed the fish’s population down to dangerously low levels. Outside of the economic impact of low fish numbers, the environmental impact of overfishing is substantial and widespread. Our free market economic system is based on the concept of a self regulating market. Unfortunately though, in cases that involve natural resources, the market doesn’t always respond fast enough to solve the problem. Because the oceans are a shared resource, we need regulations in order to avoid a “tragedy of the commons” in which overfishing continues and leads to serious environmental and economic problems.
Because Tuna are large predatory fish, heavy consumption of tuna as opposed to another fish lower on the food chain is actually far more stressful for ocean ecosystems. Tuna’s place in the food chain also means that low tuna numbers in the ocean can lead to population shifts in other species as well. The interrelated nature of ocean ecosystems means that a change in one species population can have drastic effects on the status of other species as well. For us, that could mean more expensive fish or it could force us to rely on different species for food. National Geographic has a wonderful interactive guide that describes the impacts of eating large predatory fish such as tuna. Specifically regarding tuna, this guide suggests that buyers avoid bluefin tuna because of their dangerously low numbers. At the moment some people fear that, without drastic changes to the way that we regulate fishing, bluefin tuna could actually be driven near extinction. In an article on the subject, one person even compared the the overfishing of tuna to the hunting of buffalo in the american west.
It is clear that there will be wide ranging changes to the ocean’s ecosystems if tuna continues to be fished in the same way. What makes this issue particularly difficult to tackle is the international nature of the problem. Who’s job is it to step in and protect the environment when the regulators don’t seem to be doing their job? Many people argue that the responsibility now lies with the consumer, but it will be interesting to see whether or not regulators and consumers will react quickly enough to stop the tuna from fading like the buffalo.