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Turning animal magic into money

Richard Black | 17:05 UK time, Wednesday, 24 November 2010

If you're planning to come to the 2012 Olympic Games in London, don't bring a hunger for bluefin tuna with you; you'll be disappointed.

London's Olympic Committee is one of a number of authorities and businesses that have just pledged to play no part in the marketing of bluefin "until the fishery is sustainably managed".

Supermarket giant Carrefour and sandwich chain Pret a Manger are among the other signatories to the Tuna Market Manifesto - something that conservation group WWF has been trying to establish for a while.

Tuna protest


It's the latest weapon deployed in the war of ideas playing out in Paris at the annual meeting of the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (Iccat).

The EU is once more cast as villain of the piece, following the decision late last week that it would push for the maximum quota recommended by Iccat scientific advisors - 13,500 tonnes per year - a number that those self-same scientists say means there's a 40% chance that the species will not replenish itself by 2022.

According to some legal experts, this EU position is actually contrary to its own laws that commit the bloc to pursuing a precautionary approach; but there it is, that's the agreed position.

There are two ways in which initiatives such as the Tuna Market Manifesto can influence things: because their boycott might hit the profits of the tuna industry, or because it might hit the reputation of the industry and its political supporters.

To really damage profits, one senses that a lot more companies would have to come on board; so we're into a reputational fight.

Countries such as France and Spain have already taken a lot of reputational hits over tuna in recent years, apparently in their stride; so whether a boycott from Carrefour is enough to disturb their dreams must be doubtful.

On the other hand, bluefin retailers certainly stand to suffer reputational damage themselves if they remain associated with the product.

As a recent report from the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists found, the past 15 years have seen flagrant breaking of rules across the Mediterranean, with fishermen aided and abetted by their national authorities.

In perhaps the most memorable quote from the report, a French captain, Roger del Ponte, told reporters:

“Everyone cheated... there were rules, but we didn’t follow them. It’s like driving down the road. If I know there are no police, I’m going to speed..."

Hence the desire by a number of companies now to stand visibly apart from a trade that could lead to the commercial extinction of a flagship species.

If this is a case where businesses exempt themselves to safeguard their reputation, a different tack is being tried to help tigers.

This week's International Tiger Forum in St Petersburg has seen the 13 range states sign up to an agreement aiming to double tiger numbers by 2022 - co-incidentally, the same year by which Atlantic bluefin tuna are supposed to be back to their full glory.

But where is the money coming from?

There are funds on the table from the World Bank, the US and other governments and conservation groups.

Bengal tiger


But when ongoing measures could cost as much as $350m over a decade, that might not be enough.

Jean-Christophe Vie (JC), a conservation scientist with the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), is in the early stages of building a new operation that aims to secure funding for tigers and other species from businesses.

The advantage for businesses is primarily reputational; but not completely.

When I talked with JC at the recent UN biodiversity meeting in Japan about his Save Our Species initiative, he made this case.

Say you're a company named after an animal, and then that animal goes extinct. What will that do for your business?

(After all, I don't see many companies named after the dodo, the baiji or the ichthyosaur.)

By contrast, how good will it look if you play a leading role in safeguarding a species from whom you've gained so much advantage in terms of image down the years?

And image is clearly why companies choose these names. I see a car marquee called Jaguar - but not one called Sloth. I see a line of personal care products called Dove - nothing comparable under the name of Thrush. I see Dolphin showers and baths - but I'm offered nothing under the name of Lamprey.

The exemplar here must, in fact, be the tiger.

Thailand has Tiger beer and Tiger pool cues. Tiger Stripe Products in the US will sell you military-style clothing and other goods.

In the UK you can watch a TV programme produced by the Tiger Aspect company while eating a snack from the Tiger Tiger range. Tiger Fixings will provide your building supplies - some of which you might use to install products from the Dutch Tiger Bathroom company.

And if any of these experiences prove unsatisfactory, you can write a letter of complaint on paper purchased from Tiger Stationery.

And so on.

Some companies have already signed up to Save our Species - at the Japan meeting, the mobile phone giant Nokia was much in evidence - but so far, nowhere near enough to provide the kind of funding needed in the tiger arena, let alone on a broader scale.

Saving tigers, like tuna, could be an easy way for businesses to earn a few stripes. But only, as they say, while stocks last...


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