What Does Greed Look Like? Overfishing for Tuna in the 21st Century

When we speak about the future of the ocean, we use words like sustainability and responsibility. We also lament the actions by many, often oil and gas interests, that declare their indifference to sustainability by word and irresponsibility by deed. Again and again, we identify instances when total consumption overwhelms any alternative approach, and regulation is opposed through politics, obfuscation, and corruption. The conflict, often mentioned in these blog posts, lies between human need and greed.

What does greed look like? Shannon Service, a journalist, in an article titled "Tuna Firm's Bungled IPO Exposes China's Flouting of Global Fishing Rules" published by The Guardian newspaper in October 2014, provides a stunning report into how greed works in a description of China Tuna Industry Group, from 2011 to 2013 the largest Chinese supplier of premium tuna to the Japanese market, a product considered by various international conservation organizations as "seriously over-fished" or "near endangered." China Tuna had applied for an initial public stock offering on the Hong Kong Exchange, and Service found in the draft IPO submission documents revelations about how the illegal fishing industry works. In her article, Service discovered the company stating:

"that it intended to circumvent international conservation limits by simply ignoring them. In a series of circular arguments, the document stated that China, which presides over the world's larges long-distance fishing fleet, would not crack down on companies engaged in illegal fishing because it never had in the past; that the catch limits set by Regional Fisheries Management Organizations apply only to China the country, not to actual Chinese fishing boats; and that even if the catch limits did apply, the regional fisheries organizations would not them because 'there is no sanction for non-compliance with Big Eye catch limits'."

Service attempted to follow up. She found the company was owned by a 24 year-old Chinese woman with a St. Kitt's passport, and her father. The company had no office, an unlisted telephone number, an accommodation address with another Chinese company that at first denied any connection, and a subsidiary company that finally admitted that China Tuna was indeed its parent while refusing to identify or connect with any company officers or directors. This attempt to unravel the complex skein of corporate entities, interlocking management, subsidiary arrangements, off-shore registrations, and more requires determination, knowledge of international law and forensic accounting, and courage--because the stakes are high.

In her article, Service writes,

"I have yet to speak with anyone who admits working directly for China Tuna. But the firm's combination of bravado and impenetrable corporate structure offers clues as to why the health of the oceans is in free-fall. China has told the world that from 2000 to 2011 it caught 368,000 tons of fish annually in international waters. But as the Wall Street Journal reported in 2012, the European Commission estimated the catch as closer to 4.6 million tons or 12 times greater."

In this, and in so many other instances, China defends its environmental practices by citing its status as "a developing country" with weak and unsophisticated management practices over which central government agencies have no control. Anyone with any awareness of Chinese finance, government structures, and monolithic centralized regulatory powers will only laugh at such assertions.

But there is more. Service quotes a China expert, Tabitha Mallory, who told her that

"fishing lies at the intersection of Chinese ambitions for military expansion and food security. While the many political analysts refer to the 21st century as 'the China century,' Mallory told the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission in 2012, China also calls it 'the ocean century.' She points to a 2010 Chinese task force report stating that 'marine biological resources are seen as the largest store of protein, therefore owning and mastering the ocean means owning and mastering the future'."

So, what we have here is fishing as an exercise of international power, the implementation of which needs be indifferent to treaty, law, international policy, or limiting regulation. Those Chinese fishing boats, sometimes accompanied by military vessels, into the claimed national waters of Japan, Vietnam, and South Korea may be more than the actions of rogue fishermen, but rather carefully applied tools of territorial aspiration and nationalistic political action. In such a case, rule of or by law does not pertain. Everything is a lie. Everything is possible to meet any objective regardless of impact on anyone else. Such an attitude and such action is a depressing portrayal of greed.