Monday night’s edition of Media Watch brought to attention the callous attitude of the editor of AusMarine, Neil Baird, to the suicide of the former Japanese Minister for Fisheries, Toshikatsu Matssuoka.

Baird thought the suicide was appropriate for a man under whose watch tonnes of bluefin tuna were landed illegally. But as Media Watch pointed out, and Baird failed to, Matssuoka was about to face the Japanese Parliament on allegations of embezzlement.

In fact, Baird’s views had nothing to do with conservation or animal rights. He and others who write for his magazine, which describes itself as “the only national magazine servicing the Australian commercial and government marine industry”, are vitally interested in maintaining constraint on the supply of bluefin tuna to the Japanese market to maintain the artificially high price. It is the same bluefin tuna fishery that once supplied these fish, poled from waters around the Australian coast, to canneries and to generations of Australians.

Bluefin Tuna is a fish with worldwide distribution. By declaring it “threatened”, the catch was able to be capped and then meted out in quotas. The fishery was then effectively privatised. The canneries were abandoned for the high value Japanese market and Australia, Japan and other bluefin tuna fishing nations met and agreed to reduce the catch and put a cap on international catches, an agreement that was harder to enforce in countries with large fishing fleets.

Nearly a decade ago southern bluefin tuna were put on the IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources) “Red List of Endangered Species”, right up there with white rhinos. Greenpeace even campaigned to stop fishing for bluefin tuna in Australia. The price of bluefin tuna went through the roof to $150 per kilo or more in the late 1990s. The ownership of tuna quotas, concentrated into the hands of a few, most around Port Lincoln in South Australia, made some fishermen extremely wealthy. A couple of them are among the top 20 richest Australians.

Under quota management applied to most Commonwealth and many state fisheries, the “market” then selected the “most efficient operators”. These are almost invariably big fishing companies replacing owner operators in traditional small boat fisheries.

This privatisation of fish — formerly a public resource — has occurred behind the smokescreen of conservation. The public have been lead to believe that it this “management” is good for marine conservation. Nowhere is it stated that it is for the financial benefit of a few. Sections of the public can now afford fish or find Australian fish in a “sea” of imports.

Which brings us back to Baird. Apparently the real “crime” of the former Japanese Minister was to threaten the market price of bluefin tuna in a multi million dollar industry based on its “endangered” status.

And that, your honour, is the real motivation behind Baird’s spiteful editorial.

Peter Fray

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