A Philosopher's Blog


Posted in Business, Environment, Ethics, Law by Michael LaBossiere on March 21, 2014
Large open water fish, like this Northern blue...

 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The March 2014 issue of National Geographic featured Kenneth Brower’s article on Bluefin tuna. While the article has the usual National Geographic balance, it certainly led me to consider the issues raised by the handling of the tuna harvest.

Like many species, the Bluefin is in decline. This is, obviously enough, due to human activity—primarily overfishing. While the dangerous decline of the tuna population is well-established, the powers-that-be are handling it in the usual way and are following the usual template that leads to resource depletion and perhaps extinction.

Like most industries, the tuna industry has a regulatory organization, the International Commission for the Conservation of Tuna (ICCAT). Given the name, one might suspect that it aims at conserving tuna. However, critics jokingly claim that ICCAT stands for “International Conspiracy to Catch All Tuna.” While this might not be completely accurate, ICCAT does seem to act in ways that ignore scientific data and in favor of keeping the catch limits high.

For example, in tracking catch volume ICCAT divides the North Atlantic into western and eastern zones. The problem is that the management data is not accurate—the fish are treated as two distinct stocks that do not mix, but they actually do so. As such, fish caught in the western zone could very well be from the eastern zone and vice versa. As another example, the ICCAT models also fail to consider illegally caught fish—although this is apparently significant.

Like many regulatory entities, the ICCAT often elects to simply ignore its own scientific panel. In the case of ICCAT, catch limits are set considerably higher than the recommended levels for sustainability and it seems to ignore the fact that the actual catch levels are at least double the limits it sets. Scientists have recommended that the catch limits be reduced and that fishing be suspended during most of the spawning time for the fish. These recommendations have been ignored so far.

While some might claim that these recommendations are the result of the alleged liberal agenda to destroy the fishing industry and from a hatred of all that is good and holy in capitalism, the recommendations are actually aimed at achieving sustainable fishing. That is, the recommendation is aimed at preserving the industry rather than destroying it.

It might be contended that the fishing companies would not engage in behavior that would destroy their industry. However, this is clearly not true. One reason is that there is a “strip mining” mentality in regards to handling resources. The basic idea is to get as much short-term profit as fast as possible and to not be concerned too much about the long term consequences. This approach is also fueled by the usual human tendency to discount the future and to focus on the short term at the expense of the long term. For example, people often buy things they want (but do not need) on credit and end up suffering financially later. The same sort of mentality also applies to handling resources such as tuna. Or, as some might prefer, living creatures like tuna.

This also ties into the “move on” attitude which is the view that once something has been stripped of its value, the thing to do is simply move on to another area in which to gain fast and maximum profit. That these attitudes are prevalent is clearly shown by the way that other resources are often managed, such as fossil fuels and forests.

As such, it is certainly reasonable to believe that fishing companies and their regulators would engage in the seemingly irrational activity of destroying their own industry by overfishing. After all, this has been done before. At one time Monterey Bay had a thriving sardine industry and then in the 1950s this industry crashed in part due to overfishing. What has been already occurred can surely occur again, only this time with a different species. While the big financial fish can easily move on to new profits, there is always a terrible price paid by the little fish—that is, all the people who depended on the resources for their livelihood and now find them exhausted.

It might be contended that it is possible to keep moving on—that is, to shift to a new species once one species is eliminated. This is, of course, possible—but there is clearly a finite limit to how often this can be done since there are a finite number of species. It is also worth pointing out that human activity tends to hit many species at once, which will also reduce the ability to switch species.

It might also be contended that a solution will be found that does not require engaging in sustainable fishing—people like to point to past forecasts of doom that did not come true because of some innovation or invention. While human ingenuity is impressive, to simply assume that we will be able to solve every such problem would be mere wishful thinking.  Naturally, if there is a clear and plausible plan for solving the problem, that would be another matter.

In addition to ignoring scientific data, there is also the standard tactic of “massaging” science.  A common method is to make an appeal to uncertainty. The idea is that uncertainty in the data warrants simply sticking with business as usual.  In the case of tuna, the claim is that there is uncertainty about the stock assessments in terms of numbers and the impact of human activity. This uncertainty is then exploited to warrant expanding or at least maintaining quotas. The reasoning seems to be this: since the exact numbers and effects is are not known with certainty, the new limits suggested by scientists are not warranted—so stick with the old ones or set them higher. This same approach is taken with the environment in general, as has been the case with climate change. A general pattern is also to deny that humans are having the alleged effect and attributing it to other causes—and claiming that thus there is nothing we can do (other than staying the course).

In an interesting parallel with fossil fuels, biologists who are funded by the tuna industry have claimed that there might be as-of-yet undiscovered tuna spawning grounds so the fishing can continue at the current rate (or increase).  While this is possible, there is no actual evidence for this claim. However, this sort of wishful thinking (to be generous) allows business to go on fueled by false hope unsupported by facts.

Given the growing world population, effective management of resources is critical not only for the profits of the few, but the survival of the many. As such, action should be taken to ensure a sustainable harvest of tuna. However, it is most likely that business as usual will continue and the tuna population will crash as other fish populations have crashed before them.



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31 Responses

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  1. magus71 said, on March 21, 2014 at 8:59 am


    You could use a bit more skepticism in much of your thinking.

    This is one of the coldest winters on record. The rate of hurricanes in the US reached 30 year lows. The Great Lakes’ ice cover is near record levels.


    Yet one hurricane hits a NY shore and you wrote that it was indicative of man-made global warming’s effects.

    “Given the growing world population”

    It probably won’t be growing for long. Google: “About That Overpopulation Problem”, Slate Magazine.

    Malthusian Catastrophes are passe.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on March 21, 2014 at 7:14 pm

      I’m not saying the population will crash. I’m saying that it is likely that there will be more people and more people will eat more food. We know for a fact that we can fish species to the crash point-so we should avoid that if we can.

  2. T. J. Babson said, on March 21, 2014 at 9:05 am

    Mike, you have re-discovered the “Tragedy of the Commons.” Any time there is a shared resource the tendency is to overuse it.

    • magus71 said, on March 22, 2014 at 7:17 am

      No, TJ. It;s the evil corporations. Profit, money, meat….

  3. T. J. Babson said, on March 21, 2014 at 9:06 am

    “While some might claim that these recommendations are the result of the alleged liberal agenda to destroy the fishing industry and from a hatred of all that is good and holy in capitalism…”

    No, no one would claim that.

    • magus71 said, on March 21, 2014 at 10:18 am

      “While some might claim that the high levels of fishing are the result of the alleged capitalist agenda to make money and profit, even at the cost of destroying the planet, and from a hatred of all that is good and holy in veganism…”

  4. WTP said, on March 21, 2014 at 9:11 am

    Typical of Mike logic. He starts out with
    Like many species, the Bluefin is in decline. This is, obviously enough, due to human activity–primarily overfishing.

    See, now that we have our conclusion, the rest simply falls in to place. And he has the gall (Gaul?) to mock Fox News.

  5. magus71 said, on March 21, 2014 at 10:16 am

    The next step in the environmental angst process is to begin associated the endangered recourse as itself a health problem. In the case of sea food, “they’ve” already tried this for years with tuna and other fish, pointing out that tuna contains mercury and cesium 137. Then when the Fukushima disaster struck, environmentalists warned of irradiated fish off the coast of Japan. Turns out that a typical tuna dish from the coastal areas of Japan contains about as much radioactive materials as 1/20 of a banana.


    And of course, the anti-meat crowd has warned of the dangers of eating red meat for years, this after a rigorous “cows have feelings, too” campaign that failed to result in lower consumption of hamburgers in the US.

    • magus71 said, on March 21, 2014 at 10:19 am


    • Michael LaBossiere said, on March 21, 2014 at 7:15 pm

      I didn’t object to eating tuna. I eat tuna. I’d like to be able to keep eating tuna. So, I have a selfish interest in the stocks not being depleted.

  6. T. J. Babson said, on March 21, 2014 at 11:33 am

    • magus71 said, on March 21, 2014 at 12:03 pm


      You do realize this is an argument for centralized control.

      • T. J. Babson said, on March 21, 2014 at 4:27 pm

        Some things–like the national parks–need centralized control. I think the oceans fall under this category.

        • Michael LaBossiere said, on March 21, 2014 at 7:18 pm

          I agree-as you pointed out, the oceans is a commons and we can make it into a tragedy. Centralized control is not inherently bad and is often advantageous. Corporations are centrally controlled, so are armies. They don’t do that just for the hell of it.

        • magus71 said, on March 22, 2014 at 7:07 am

          Mike quickly agrees with you. A rarity. But we’re talking about food, here. Centralized control of food has resulted in millions of deaths, just in this century.

          • T. J. Babson said, on March 22, 2014 at 12:38 pm

            But how can we have private ownership of the oceans?

            • apollonian said, on March 22, 2014 at 1:33 pm

              There’s Just Tooooooooooooooooooooo Many Stupid People

              Golly gee, TJB: same way u got private ownership of the atmosphere, ho ho ho ho–same way u got private ownership of outer-space, or the sun, or the moon. How do u have private ownership of anything? Ho ho ho ho

              Observe the contrived problemo: Mike complains these criminals, corp.s, who have their power through corrupt politicians, getting their gov. subsidies, etc., are now “over-fishing,” and spoiling everything. So what’s his solution?–DICTATORSHIP, naturally, as usual–in fact, dictatorship by these VERY SAME people, the criminals of the corp.s and their suck-along politicians taking the dirty money.

              As God is our judge, if humanity wants to survive, they gotta think their way out of things–but they refuse, preferring rather bread & circuses. So people are going to continue to die-out–until a certain pt. is reached when the remnant survivors begin to start thinking–things are determined and CYCLIC in this sociologic/historical fashion, always remember.

              And when u look and see, u see there’s still lots of “bread & circuses” for all the goons and morons who dominate our culture–not to mention the criminals at top who take advantage, beginning w. the US Federal Reserve Bank (legalized) COUNTERFEIT scam.

              And beyond above simple observations of practical nature, THEN u got the under-lying abstract problem(s) for the culture: the “Judeo-Christian” hereticalists/traitors who continue to support Israeli terror-state–this HAS to be mind-boggling for anyone, these so-called “Christians” backing Pharisaists of Israeli terror-state, who brag about having killed Christ.

              U see?–USA (and West in general, evidently) just bred-up toooooooo many stupid, scummy puke–that’s all there is to it, really. So now, some means has to arise to kill-off these utterly stupid, brainless, scum–Jews are God’s answer, which hist. and sociology prove brilliantly.

            • wtp said, on March 22, 2014 at 1:42 pm

              Vacillating on whether to weigh in here or not. The concept of public goods and common goods and the transition from one to the other is an interesting philosophical economic study. Another subject beyond Mike’s ken, so I hesitated to go there. The concepts underlay much of real estate law and how it contrasts with other property rights. But what it all boils down to is something that gives the Mikeomasses both vapors and excuses via slippery slope argumentation to justify, as Magus alludes, central control. The fundamental principle that underlays all property rights is one’s ability to physically defend one’s ownership of physical world items from others who wish to take them away for themselves or others. Suffice to say a tuna swimming in the open sea can be a common or public good, but once caught and in the boat, it’s ownership status becomes murkier. Especially in the domain of international waters. Something that has at times and in places caused considerable friction between two such tight economic and military allies as the US and Canada. As I believe I’ve said here before, unless you have an army, you don’t really “own” your land. Your rights are more of a license. Similar applies to fish, crabs, whatevs in the sea.

            • magus71 said, on March 23, 2014 at 6:50 am

              I’m skeptical of controlling food to any great extant even in international waters. I do think it’s a dangerous precedent to allow nations who have no interest or perhaps a perverse interest to tell another country what it can eat, even if that particular food is a fairly basic staple in the diet, as tuna is to the Japanese. Considering the lack of natural resources in Japan, they have limited choices. Most of their animal products are from the ocean. It’s too easy to criticize Japan from America where we have easy access to all kinds of products.

              And regardless of Mike’s disbelief (yes, I know the slippery slope argues for necessity, not possibility) in slippery slope arguments, in fact, precedent is one of the major aspects of law. It’s the first thing courts look at: What’s been done before. Take away a tuna and maybe we can’t eat cows because eating meat is making the earth warmer and we all just *know* what global warming will do to us.

              I doubt that the Japanese want to fish tuna to extinction either. I’m betting they’re far more cognizant of the possibilities than we are from afar.

              Another aspect of food control that results in millions dying: The Left’s mania over GMOs and biofuels.

            • Michael LaBossiere said, on March 24, 2014 at 3:12 pm

              I’m sure people do not want to exterminate tuna, anymore than people wanted to exterminate passenger pigeons.

              I have no objection against GMO-after all, most food crops are the result of centuries of genetic tinkering. Biofuels are, as I have argued, often a bad idea. Using up food crops to make low efficiency fuel is not wise. Using non-food crops grown in areas that would otherwise be unused could be good business.

            • WTP said, on March 23, 2014 at 8:35 am

              While cattle would exist within a country’s borders, the argument that they are affecting a common good, being the air, is typical of how the left works. Similar to second hand smoke BS, which I understand they even want to extend to e-cigs. It’s control they feel they must have. It’s an underlying fear of insecure people that I think has something to do with the wave after wave after wave of dystopian, end of the world movies books, and such. Don’t know if you saw the BS “NASA study” about how the 1% are going to destroy civilization? It’s simply inevitable. The academics have it all worked out. Just like they did from Thomas Malthus through The Club of Rome through Algore and beyond.

              However, re Slippery Slope, per David Hume

              It is seldom that liberty of any kind is lost all at once. Slavery has so frightful an aspect to men accustomed to freedom that it must steal in upon them by degrees and must disguise itself in a thousand shapes in order to be received.

            • T. J. Babson said, on March 23, 2014 at 10:17 am

              C’mon guys. Whenever there is a common resource you need to have limits to prevent some people from hogging it all. Similarly, we need some regulations to prevent air and water pollution.

              That said, we have gone way overboard with regulations to the point that in many cases nobody even knows what the law is anymore. In that case the law becomes whatever some petty official says it is.

            • WTP said, on March 23, 2014 at 10:46 am

              TJ, I agree with you. See my post above concerning common goods, public goods, and real estate law. I’m agreeing with Magus in regard to the danger where the left, via Malthusian/dystopian fear, finds leverage to declare all goods public goods by equating cow farts with air pollution.

            • Michael LaBossiere said, on March 24, 2014 at 3:08 pm

              Perhaps the same way it works for land. The idea seems odd because of tradition, but owning tracts of sea is no more odd than owing tracts of land.

            • WTP said, on March 24, 2014 at 6:26 pm

              See how the philosopher doesn’t comprehend the fundamentals of ownership I describe in my post above? Of corse there are significant differences twixt owning land vs sea that even a child could understand. There is no slippery slope when you treat two things the same when your ignorance prevents you from seeing how things are different.

  7. apollonian said, on March 21, 2014 at 12:09 pm

    Mike: this is one of ur more lame articles/essays. So the corp. fishers who get money, subsidies, and favorable treatment fm their cohorts in gov. are over-fishing the seas?–of course, so now they create the excuse for the usual corp./gov. partnership taking dictatorial control which lower-level gov. flunkies like urself can now use to make prop. for dictatorship and socialism, eh?–brilliant–that’s why they gave u ur Ph.d, eh?

  8. magus71 said, on March 24, 2014 at 5:27 am

    Just don’t underestimate the power of this type of thinking.

    • WTP said, on March 24, 2014 at 6:21 am

      Yes, we’ll all “be forced to go vegan”. The logic is impeccable. My mom agrees.

      • WTP said, on March 24, 2014 at 6:22 am

        Mocking the video goofball not your point. Just to be clear.

      • T. J. Babson said, on March 24, 2014 at 6:37 am

        Another reason to “Ban Bossy.”

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