The Tragedy of the (Endangered) Tuna

bluefin tunaI love tuna.

But do I love tuna enough to help stop it from going extinct?

According to CBC News: Tuna reviewed for endangered status

Canadian scientists are reviewing whether to list Atlantic bluefin tuna as an endangered fish, concerned the BP oil spill could tip the scales for the giant fish.

Scientists in the U.S. are also considering whether the tuna should be declared endangered. The odds against that happening in Canada are long. Canada has never listed a commercially fished saltwater species, not even cod….

The mention of cod above is instructive. Having lived on Canada’s east coast for nearly a decade, I’ve seen the cultural and economic impact of the collapse of the cod fishery there. Many people know about the collapse, which happened in the early 90’s, and most people probably know that it happened due to overfishing. That’s the simple story. Many standard accounts attribute the collapse to ‘factory’ fishing and to short-term thinking by the Canadian government. But the full story is more complex still, because the structure of the problem is a muti-tiered ‘tragedy of the commons, a “dilemma arising from the situation in which multiple individuals, acting independently, and solely and rationally consulting their own self-interest, will ultimately deplete a shared limited resource even when it is clear that it is not in anyone’s long-term interest for this to happen.” Why do I say “multi-tiered”? Well, because are really 3 ‘tragedy of the commons’ scenarios at play when it comes to overfishing, generally:

  • Between countries: Canada, the U.S., Portugal, Spain, and Iceland all benefited from fishing the north Atlantic for cod. If one had shown restraint and fished less, that would only have meant that the others would catch more. So each had a motive to go for more cod, rather than less — which is just what everyone did, with tragic results.
  • Between fishers: It’s been suggested that individual fishers understood, prior to government scientists, that the cod fishery was in trouble. But they had families to feed, so they had every reason to keep on fishing. Besides, an individual ecologically-minded fisher holding back would done have essentially zero to benefit the cod population as a whole.
  • Between consumers: Consumers like cod, and they like tuna, too. Personally, I know tuna is in jeopardy. What am I going to do? I could stop eating it — but would that matter? Probably not. If we all forego tuna, that will certainly work. But are we all going to? Maybe. But if you all do, then me eating tuna won’t do any harm. And if you all aren’t willing to help, me doing my bit won’t help either.

Now, that may sound defeatist, but if you want to understand the problems with the world’s fisheries you need to appreciate the underlying motivational logic. What about solutions? Well, education may help at the consumer level, but frankly I’m skeptical. Regulation would help, but as the CBC story points out, governments are loathe to put limits on a fishery that provides lots of jobs. Frankly, that’s understandable. International agreements can sometimes motivate governments to act — but we all know those are difficult to arrange and to enforce. It’s all quite difficult. The only thing I know for sure is that I really, really like sushi.

The Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch categorizes bluefin tuna as a fish to “Avoid,” noting that “All populations of bluefin tuna are being caught faster than they can reproduce.”

(Here’s more about the Northern bluefin tuna.)

About Chris MacDonald

I'm a philosopher who teaches at Ryerson University's Ted Rogers School of Management in Toronto, Canada. Most of my scholarly research is on business ethics and healthcare ethics.
This entry was posted in aquaculture, ethics, fisheries, international, regulation. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to The Tragedy of the (Endangered) Tuna

  1. This triumvirate of blindness to the common good isn’t limited to seafood. One could apply this to action (or, more accurately, inaction) on climate change, for example, or energy consumption, or water conservation.
    Education is a must, but so is a strengthening of collaborative relationships that enable us to better appreciate and focus on our similarities, especially in terms of collective survival and sustainability, instead of our differences.

  2. Celesa:

    Good point, but it’s worth noting that even dedication to the public good is insufficient in such situations.

    I can believe x is crucial to the public good, and be dedicated to pursuing the public good, but if I don’t think others are going to do their part, then I can (rationally) fail to act.

    • Exactly. That’s why we need more collaborative relationships to build our awareness of common interests (i.e., serving collective survival and sustainability), so that we are better able to implement collaborative solutions and act together. Peer pressure can be a good thing!

  3. wprothero says:

    You describe a terrible problem that relates to human nature and it is indeed a tragedy. The only thing I can think of to address this is to support and encourage awareness and education about the pros and cons of various resource management scenarios. I have built the “Tragedy of the Commons Fishing Simulation Game” based on the Fishbanks game of Dennis Meadows. It’s at

    Good work.

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