New Internationalist

The Great Tunafish Sandwich Hunt

Issue 325

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Fish / TUNA

The US appetite for tuna knows no bounds - as a history of piracy, trade wars and frosty international relations has shown.

Object of desire
South Pacific islanders were the first to venture out in search of tuna during the Stone Age. Today, tuna is a popular sandwich-filler for Americans. Over half of the tuna caught in the South Pacific is shipped to the US.

[image, unknown]
MICHEL GUNTHER / STILL PICTURES

Tuna's Christopher Columbus
The Portuguese showed North Americans how to catch the crafty tuna, teaching Californians to chum (attract and keep the fish near ships by throwing live bait overboard) and string lines from boats. But consumers had not heard of tuna till 1903 when a Californian fish packer was having trouble getting enough sardines and began processing albacore tuna instead. Customers liked the 'white meat' fish and more canneries sought tuna. In 1932 the 'Christopher Columbus of tuna', Joaquin Medina, set out from San Diego in the largest fishing vessel of the time, the Mayflower. He travelled almost 14,400 kilometres and fished for yellowfin tuna around Hawaii. Four years later, in a tuna clipper named Cabrillo, he sailed to the Marquesas and the Galapagos Islands and returned with even greater catches, stimulating more interest in long fishing expeditions.

Enter the big net
US fishers were the first to adopt the purse-seiner - boats with a giant net which sweeps up everything in sight including dolphins, sharks, coral and other fish species. Fisher Lou Brito started the craze in 1958 when his Southern Pacific, the first purse-seiner to operate from San Diego, returned with a large catch. In the next five years, 97 tuna-boats were converted to purse-seiners.

North American fishers also reaped the rewards of a US Government position that claimed that tuna were not located within any country's national jurisdictions. Seizure of US boats for illegal fishing did not deter the poaching - the US Government punished countries seizing American ships by reducing its foreign aid. For a period of about 25 years, US purse-seiner fishers were able to fish where they liked and how they liked - without paying a cent in compensation.

Dead dolphins aren't fun
[image, unknown] Until the 1980s the US primarily fished in the Eastern Pacific, where tuna and dolphins swim together. About 400,000 dolphins were killed each year in nets of the US tuna fleet - then the largest in the world. But Sam La Budde's dramatic footage of dolphins dying in tuna nets, filmed by him while working undercover on a Panamanian tuna-boat, sparked popular outrage. In January 1988, environmentalists launched a successful consumer boycott of three major tuna processors in the US - Heinz's Star Kist label, Chicken of the Sea and Bumble Bee - which announced in 1990 they would no longer accept tuna caught in nets that kill dolphins. 'Tuna is fun food,' explained Ted Smyth, Vice President of Heinz, who referred to its common use in kids' sandwiches. 'If it's associated with the harassment and killing of a noble creature like the dolphin, that's not right.'

Tuna Wars: round one
[image, unknown] Beginning with scuffles over US illegal fishing in the early 1980s, the US-Mexican 'tuna war' became global in the late 1980s. Under pressure from environmentalists, the US embargoed Mexico for producing tuna that was dolphin-unsafe. Initially, this had little economic effect on the Mexican tuna fleet - now the largest in the world, supplying the big markets of Europe and Japan. But on 20 April 1991, the US extended the ban to all European countries that brought Mexican tuna to can and re-exported it to the US. This affected $4-5 million worth of exports from France, Italy and Britain. The Mexican Government, followed by Europe, took the US to the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) Panel which ruled that 'regulations governing the taking of dolphins incidental to the taking of tuna could not possibly affect tuna as a product' and that countries could not embargo a product for how it is produced. But GATT's ruling was never enforced and the US was let off the hook.

A touch of arrogance
As controversy raged in the Eastern Pacific in the 1980s the US fleet headed west. But South Pacific nations soon became fed up with continued poaching and the US found itself in another tussle over tuna. Despite ship seizures, the US was still aloof to local concerns until Kiribati gave the USSR access to its fishery for a fee of $1.5 million a year. The Pentagon panicked about this Soviet encroachment into 'friendly waters'. According to Island Business: 'It spurred the US to work harder for a multilateral treaty. At previous talks, the Americans had displayed what island delegates initially described as a good deal of ignorance, insensitivity and more than a touch of arrogance.' Signed in early 1987, the subsequent fishing agreement established a programme of payments for regional economic development.

Globalization in a can
[image, unknown] Today, tuna consumed by US customers may have been harvested in the South Pacific, shipped to Thailand, bought on the spot market, canned in a plant leased to one corporation, then labelled and distributed by another.

Canneries founded in Puerto Rico in the 1970s lost an average of 1,000 jobs per year in the 1980s when tuna processing shifted to American Samoa - popular for its favourable tax rates, easy export to the US and cheaper labour. The Pago Pago canneries consumed around a third of water and electricity supplied by the Government, leaving the country dependent on US aid.

Globalization of the industry became complete in the 1990s as the canners turned to booming Asia. Asian-based firms bought two of the big three canned-tuna companies - Bumble Bee and Chicken of the Sea. Half of the world's canned tuna is caught in the South Pacific, but 95 per cent profits of fishing tuna go to the US, Taiwan, Japan and Korea. Just three corporations supply 90 per cent of the fish that makes up an American icon - the tunafish sandwich.

Sources:
Alessandro Bonanno & Douglas Constance,
Caught in the Net: The Global Tuna Industry,
Environmentalism and the State
(University Press of Kansas, 1996).
DJ Doulman, Tuna Issues in the Pacific Islands Region (East-West Center, 1987).
Encyclopedia Brittanica online: www.britannica.com


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