March 18, 2010

Will bluefin tuna disappear?

I never really liked tuna until I was in college and discovered tuna steaks. When grilled to perfection, they tasted like juicy little pieces of heaven. This was in the late 1980s, well before I knew anything about the ecology, overfishing, or had turned into a vegetarian. But I still remember the smell of those grilled tuna steaks and I will admit the memory makes my mouth water. I don’t think I’ve ever eaten bluefin tuna since I never acquired a fondness for tuna sashimi, and now I’m happy about that. Due to the skyrocketing popularity of bluefin tuna in high-end restaurants, and the resulting collapse of bluefin in the wild, my generation will most likely be the last to eat Atlantic bluefin tuna.

I've been following the story of this fish for a couple of years, and the story just keeps getting worse. Today in my new feed I read a story that pits ecology and biology against commerce and greed.

First, let’s explore a little background. Tuna are not like the cute little cartoons on the tuna cans at the grocery store. They are beautiful, enormous deep sea predators that prey on schooling fish, squid, crustaceans, and eels. Unlike most fish, bluefin are actually warm blooded, and can even raise their core body temperatures to 75-95°F, even in water as cold as 43 °F. They can swim up to 100 miles a day at speeds up to 43 miles per hour in search of prey. They are voracious predators, scouring the ocean for their favorite foods. Tuna are also one of the most hydrodynamic species in the ocean, able to retract their dorsal and pectoral fins to reduce drag while swimming. In addition, they’re migratory and one of the most well traveled ocean species. Some have been tracked swimming across the Atlantic several times in one year.

Bluefin have been a staple of human diets for millennia. They used to be so numerous in the Mediterranean that stories tell of how they fed the Roman legions 2,000 years ago. Tuna also played important roles in most other European histories when bluefin over 15 feet in length and weighing up to 500 pounds were common in the east Atlantic (the largest bluefin ever caught weighed a whopped 1,500 pounds!). Today, bluefin are very rare in the east Atlantic because of overfishing. Not only are they rare, many scientists and conservation organizations think that they will become extinct in our lifetimes.

Now let's get to the part related to biology and ecology vs. commerce and greed. According to the WWF:

There are 2 populations of Atlantic bluefin tuna. The smaller western stock has declined by nearly 90% since the 1970s and is classified as Critically Endangered. The larger eastern stock, which spawns in the Mediterranean Sea, is currently classified as Endangered but in fact is in danger of complete commercial and biological extinction. Both populations are classified as overfished, but overfishing continues.

Today, bluefins are the most valuable fish in the sea because their flesh is turned into what is evidently delicious melt-in-your sashimi. They're so valuable, in fact, that much of the tuna now caught is caught illegally. To highlight just how valuable bluefin are, in 2001, one 440 pound Pacific bluefin tuna sold for $220,000. That’s just one fish! This year, another huge fish sold for $177,000 (two Japanese sushi restaurants bought it). All just because people like eating bluefin sashimi. A twist in this tale of tuna is that Mitsubishi (yes, the Japanese car company) is now buying up huge quantities of bluefin and putting them in deepfreeze. Why? Many speculate that once bluefin becomes commercially extinct, the corporation that is currently buying 40% of bluefin and is based in the country buying up 80% of the bluefin, can rake in huge profits selling a fish that no longer swims in the oceans.

Scientists and fisheries experts have recognized for years that the bluefin are severely overfished and have tried to try to do something to create a more sustainable harvest. However, the organization that is supposed to monitor the bluefin trade and set sustainable catch limits (the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tuna) went against the advice of its own scientists and allowed a 2009 catch of 22,000 tons instead of the recommended maximum of 15,000 tons. And that’s just the legal catch. Some reports say that the real annual catch is really more like three times the level recommended to ensure sustainability.

Even though ICCAT’s own scientists now say that current bluefin spawning is less than 15% of historic levels and that the species should be listed as endangered under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) and its trade more tightly regulated, many nations oppose listing the species and don't want CITES to play a role in regulating tuna (perhaps because it’s lucrative commercially?). If you’re not familiar with CITES, its mission is to ensure that international trade does not threaten the survival of wild plants and animals. Seems like CITES should play a role in the bluefin trade if CITES means anything at all.

Recently, conservation organizations have pushed not only for reduced catch limits, but for a complete ban in the trade in bluefin to allow the species to recover. Today, members of a UN wildlife organization discussed this proposal, then voted against banning the trade of bluefin.

One of the most common arguments against cutting back the annual catch limits or an outright ban is that such tactics will economically hurt small countries that depend on the tuna trade. Well, what will the economic impact be when bluefin are gone? Many of the countries opposed to smaller catch limits or outright bans say that claims of imminent extinction are overblown. Based on everything I’ve read, I think estimates of impending collapse of the bluefin are probably correct. But it's unlikely that even a total ban of bluefin fishing would actually save the species. Even if the ban had been approved, Japan would ignore it.

So here is the basic conflict between ecology and biology, commerce and greed. Is it better to reduce or stop the harvest an animal in hopes of saving it from extinction, which in turn will preserve the species for future generations? Should we want to save not only a species, but its role in the ecosystem? Or is it better to catch all we can right now, make as much money as possible, and pig out on sashimi while we wait for an entire species to disappear? At the moment, it appears that commerce and greed are winning out.

Much of the information in this post came from the excellent documentary "End of the Line."

1 comment:

  1. Avant-Garde Food Critic [News Poem, March 18, 2010]

    “Andrew Wetzler of the Natural Resources Defense Council said the CITES vote is not the end of the story for the bear.
    "The ironic thing is that all the countries of the conference acknowledge that global warming is posing a huge challenge for this species," Wetzler said. "When you have a species threatened by global warming, it only makes sense to reduce all the other stresses, including hunting."”
    -Deborah Zabarenko, Environment Correspondent Thu Mar 18, 2010 5:30pm EDT

    The meat of clones will never do
    For palettes fine—refined like mine.
    I've tasted polar bear ragout
    And eaten baiji cooked in wine.

    I never let the people say
    I have no use for scarcer fare.
    One cannot measure food's dismay
    With what I gain: they don't compare.

    The hypocrites are shocked I'm sure.
    To keep their jobs, they smog with crude.
    To keep their false facade secure,
    They let machines prepare their food.

    I'm keeping nothing, nothing's worth
    The effort there, instead I seek
    To keep myself well fed. My girth
    Is sourced with doom, not death: unique

    I'd say. I'd like to try the last taboo
    And dine as cannibals once did:
    Without remorse, I'd slurp that stew.
    By eating youth, become a kid.