Red Gold: On the Global Politics of Regulating Marine Life

Jennifer Telesca

Canned and worth pennies a half century ago, a single bluefin tuna sold at auction in Tokyo for a record $1.7 million in January 2013. Global demand for the planet's best sushi has fueled the environmentalists' concern that the prized bluefin--what industry insiders call "red gold"--is on the brink of extinction. At the same time, nation states have agreed to protect it and other animals on the high seas through the policies adopted by the treaty body known as the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT). Because marine life has plummeted under ICCAT's watch since its inception some four decades ago, this dissertation asks: what is ICCAT achieving, if not its advertised purpose to conserve sea creatures? This ethnographic study illuminates environmental diplomacy in action, and takes the supply of the high-profile Atlantic bluefin tuna as material to explain how the oceans are governed, by whom, for whom and according to what values and logics. Based on time-series data collected over three years, it shows in situ that ICCAT is entangled in a larger universe of international lawmaking, economic development, statecraft, civil society and fisheries science--all to master very mobile things of nature. The dissertation advances three primary findings. First, red gold and ICCAT co-produced one another, and did so under pressure from the environmentalists and from encroaching international legal instruments. As delegates safeguard the survival of red gold for the export markets of ICCAT signatories, red gold ensures ICCAT's importance in the emergent field of ocean governance. Second, two bets organize ICCAT's regulatory action. In the game of marine conservation, delegates worry about the net total of the export quota. Yet in the game of economic development, member states seek to grow their share of the pie. Conservation is calibrated to supplying the market for economic growth, not to creating an ocean full of fish. Third, as delegates aspire to control the supply of red gold, ICCAT proclaims its empire too: today member states assert their sovereignty by demonstrating their good standing in supra-national regulatory regimes, even when a meeting's outcome does not satisfy their interests.