Bluefin schooling in the Pacific Ocean. (Photo: Richard Herrmann/Getty Images)

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Can We Have Our Tuna and Eat It Too?

The severe decline of the majestic, athletic bluefin challenges conservationists all across the Pacific.
Jun 10, 2016· 11 MIN READ
Willy Blackmore is TakePart’s Food editor.

Ever since he was a kid growing up in Brooklyn in the 1960s, marine ecologist Carl Safina has been enamored with bluefin tuna. Being out on Long Island in the waters off the South Shore or Montauk, wrestling a fishing rod with a shimmering silver bluefin on the end of the line, was “the most thrilling thing in my life,” Safina told me recently. The torpedo-shaped fish, able to grow to 10 feet in length and weigh 1,000 pounds, is one of the largest and fastest fish in the ocean.

“I used to catch them; I used to kill them; I used to eat them. I even used to sell them,” he said. Though he is still awed by bluefin, Safina hasn’t fished for his favorite catch in 16 years. Today the professor for nature and humanity at Stony Brook University and founder of ocean conservation nonprofit The Safina Center at the university finds the thought of landing a bluefin depressing. “No one should eat bluefin tuna for the foreseeable future,” he said.

Populations of both Pacific and Atlantic bluefin have declined precipitously since the 1960s. According to projections released in April by the International Scientific Committee for Tuna and Tuna-like Species, an intergovernmental research and conservation group, bluefin stocks in the North Pacific Ocean are at just 2.6 percent of their historic population. In 2014, the International Union for Conservation of Nature upgraded its listing for Pacific bluefin from “least concern” to “vulnerable,” but does not plan to reconsider the status of the species this year, despite the new stock assessment (Atlantic bluefin are listed as “endangered”). According to some scientists and conservationists, we've reached a point where overfishing isn’t a threat just to bluefin as a commodity but to the continued existence of the species.

FULL COVERAGE: The Fight to Save the World's Oceans

Still, not everyone agrees with Safina—or the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch, which recommends avoiding bluefin caught anywhere in the Pacific in any manner—that the fish should be left in the sea, full stop. The website of the West Coast Region of NOAA Fisheries maintains that catch limits cutting the domestic bluefin take by 40 percent have made “eating domestically caught bluefin a sustainable choice.” Many—especially on the western side of the Pacific—are even enthusiastic about eating the fish: In 2013, the first bluefin of the season, which traditionally sells for an inflated price at auction, went for a record $1.76 million for 488 pounds of fish at Tokyo’s Tsukiji fish market.

(Photo: Thomas Peter/Reuters)

Don’t eat it at all, eat it only under certain circumstances, or eat it at any cost while you still can—the divergent attitudes toward bluefin indicate why it will be so difficult to replenish the species' populations through managing the fishery. But thanks in part to biology—bluefin are nearly as effective at reproducing as they are at swimming—and shifting public opinion, the species is not a lost cause. In North America, biologists and restaurant critics are swearing off meals of bluefin. That has helped lead to strict catch limits in the Eastern Pacific that experts say could allow the species to recover. Across the ocean, though, there’s far less pressure to reduce the catch.

Jiro Ono, owner of Tokyo’s three-Michelin-star Sukiyabashi Jiro and the subject of the 2011 documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi, wonders about the future of bluefin and other depleted seafood species—but he seems more concerned with how increasing demand will affect their availability than with the decreasing number of fish. “I can’t imagine at all that sushi in the future will be made of the same materials we use today,” the chef told the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan in 2014. At a restaurant like Ono’s, otoro—bluefin tuna belly, streaked with veins of fat like a marbled ribeye steak—is the apex of a carefully plotted succession of small pieces of fish draped over rice. Brushed with soy sauce and dotted with freshly ground wasabi, a portion of otoro is completely dissociated from the imposing fish whence it came. If making that connection is hard, conceiving of a conservation plan that countries on both sides of the Pacific can agree on and enforce may be even harder.

In the 1920s, San Diego was known as the tuna capital of the world. While it lacks the literary acclaim John Steinbeck lent to Monterey’s fishing and canning industry, the city’s own Cannery Row employed as many as 40,000 workers at its peak. Americans filled their sandwiches and casseroles with tuna caught by boats that docked in San Diego and processed in the city’s factories—much of it albacore, which turned chicken-white when cooked, but some bluefin too. Today, Bumble Bee Seafoods is still headquartered in San Diego, despite the city’s last cannery shuttering more than 30 years ago.

Buyers inspect fresh bluefin prior to the first auction of the year at Tsukiji Market in Tokyo in January 2015. (Photo: Ken Ishii/Getty Images)

The decline of San Diego’s tuna fishery is an early example of economic globalization. The Japanese tuna fleet was able to undercut the U.S. boats on price. San Diego adapted by switching from baiting fish with long lines to using purse seine systems—giant nets that can ring and haul up an entire school of fish at once. Off the California coast, tuna and dolphins swim in the same deep-water habitat, and ethical concerns over the mammalian bycatch led canning companies to rely increasingly on an international supply chain. San Diego boats went in search of different catches. Today, sportfishing boats catch more bluefin in Southern California than commercial fishers do; just one purse seine bluefin boat continues to operate out of San Diego.

Same as it ever was: The Californians who ply the Pacific for bluefin are convinced that Japan is cutting them out of the market.

In 2015, U.S. bluefin boats caught roughly one-third of their allowed catch—about 100 tons of fish. That is why NOAA Fisheries can say the California fishery is sustainable—it’s both small and operating well below its catch limits. “If you’re going to eat bluefin, bluefin caught off of the West Coast from a small, sustainable fishery is better than buying bluefin from anywhere else,” said Barry Thom, deputy regional administrator for the West Coast Region of NOAA Fisheries.

Pole fishing for tuna—the way it used to be done.

But it’s questionable whether U.S. efforts will be enough. American boats pull in just 1 percent of the international bluefin haul. Ninety percent of all bluefin are caught in the Western Pacific, and around 80 percent of Pacific bluefin caught each year are consumed in Japan. Being singular swimming machines—the animals migrate some 6,000 nautical miles across the Pacific, from Japan to California, and back again—efforts to save the fish need to be coordinated. If a tuna escapes capture by a boat from San Francisco because the catch limit has been reached, only to swim across the ocean and end up on some diner's plate in Tokyo, it's hard to say anything has been gained for the survival of the species. “We can save as many as we want in the Eastern Pacific, but if they go to the Sea of Japan and get caught, our conservation efforts are for naught,” said Thom.

In light of that, said Amanda Nickson, director of global tuna conservation at The Pew Charitable Trusts, “it was particularly disappointing to see the U.S. come out with something that said there was any possibility that Pacific bluefin catches could be sustainable. At this point in time, fishing is absolutely a risk to the species.”

Part of the problem is that many of the fish are caught as juveniles, before they get the chance to reproduce. Limiting the Pacific bluefin catch to fish more than 44 pounds could increase the number of mature fish able to reproduce fourfold in just five years, a 2014 study commissioned by Pew found. The first catch limit on juvenile fish was imposed on boats in the Western Pacific last year; fleets there now catch half as much bluefin under 66 pounds as they did on average between 2002 and 2004—roughly 4,400 tons last year—and have agreed to not increase their take of mature fish. It’s not a ban on catching juvenile fish, along the lines of the limit proposed in the Pew study, but the new limits are far more strict than what existed, which could fairly be described as industry self-regulation.

“This is an entirely winnable war,” said Nickson. The Western Pacific is where Pacific bluefin spawn, so the restrictions on young fish should help with recovery.

Nickson, who used to work on mammal conservation at the World Wildlife Fund, said one way to think about the loss of bluefin stocks is in terms of another animal, one with which people feel more of an emotional connection. Tigers, for instance, are considered a much more charismatic species. Tuna don't nurse their young, and they don't exhibit behaviors like grooming that we recognize in our pets. At the turn of the 20th century, there were about 100,000 tigers living in the wild, and that number has dropped to about 3,000. Pacific bluefin are also at about 3 percent of their historic population.

The difference, Nickson said, is no one is saying that the commercial hunting of tigers can be part of conservation plans to bring the species back.

In certain food circles in the U.S., not eating bluefin—like not eating veal or foie gras—has become a political act. Telling the sushi chef serving up omakase that you’ll eat anything but bluefin is a way to signal that you’re aware of where the food comes from and the ecological effect of the restaurant's wholesale purchasing. Los Angeles Times food critic Jonathan Gold once told me that while he doesn’t always bring up the environmental problems related to animal proteins like beef in his reviews, he always calls out chefs for serving bluefin and says flat-out that people should not eat it.

“Some people say that as a restaurant critic at a place like the L.A. Times, I’m not supposed to be political, I am not supposed to talk about stuff like that,” Gold said. “But that’s almost like asking me, asking somebody, not to talk about the truth of global warming.”

For $120, sportfishers in Southern California can join an overnight deep-sea fishing trip with charter company Davey’s Locker of Newport Beach and ply the waters around the Channel Islands, where bluefin and other large game fish, such as yellowtail, dorado, and white sea bass, can be caught. “Fish in comfort, on these overnight ships with sundecks, large indoor kitchens and booth seating, bunks with full bedding and lots of other great amenities,” the company’s website reads. “Along with these comforts, our ships have state of the art fish finding systems” and other technology to help customers land more.

Davey's Locker owner Mike Thompson. (Photo: Lauren Wade)

“When they’re around, we like them to be available for us to catch,” Mike Thompson, owner of Davey’s Locker, said of bluefin. Off the Southern California coast, commercial and sportfishing boats have reported seeing record numbers of young bluefin in recent years. Despite that anecdotal evidence of larger stocks, catch limits for recreational fishers were dropped in 2015 to two bluefin per person per day, down from a maximum of 10 and a maximum of six fish per trip. That, said Thompson, “was kind of painful for my industry.”

Even if he can continue running bluefin fishing trips with the two-fish limit in place, Thompson doesn’t see it helping the state of the species. “The real problem—and there is a real problem—is going on in the Western Pacific,” he said. “And if it doesn’t get solved, it’s going to be ocean-wide. There’s going to be no bluefin.”

The folks at NOAA Fisheries agree. The agency hopes to further curb the catch in the Western Pacific during upcoming meetings of the intergovernmental commissions that regulate the tuna fishery, and it has set a goal of hitting 20 percent of the original Northern Pacific spawning stock biomass by 2030. Fish of all ages were included in the catch reductions for the Eastern Pacific, which were also enacted in 2015. NOAA Fisheries will recommend additional catch restrictions for adult fish in the Western Pacific in June, when the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission, which manages tuna stocks in the Eastern Pacific, meets just outside of San Diego, in La Jolla, California. The Northern Committee of the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission, which manages the Western Pacific, will meet in August.

“If there’s no more bluefin, then there’s no more people to go fishing for bluefin—and that’s going to impact my business,” said Thompson, who employs between 80 and 100 people to operate his fleet and staff the docks during the peak of the season. The people Davey’s Locker takes out catch plenty of fish other than bluefin, but there are certain times of year when they’re the easiest, most plentiful species to catch. It wouldn’t kill his business were bluefin to go away, but he would take a hit.

Safina fell in love with undersea creatures like bluefin by, as he said, tormenting them. He continues to practice what his wife dubs “kill and go home” fishing (as opposed to catch-and-release) for other species, putting him closer than most people get to the seafood they eat—and reminding him that fish are part of nature and not simply a commodity.

“Fish seem more remote to us” than other food sources, Safina said. “They have a history of mass exploitation because they often live in large numbers. They try to flee when threatened, but most people don’t see that—most people don’t detect them in any way until they’re in a net or dead or already on the end of a line.” Or, indeed, on a bed of ice at the supermarket. The result of that physical and emotional distance is often seen in grim qualifications, like the “vegetarian” who consumes seafood. “It’s OK to eat fish,” Kurt Cobain sang in “Something in the Way,” “ ’cause they don’t have any feelings.”

Diners’ disconnect with fish is exacerbated in the case of bluefin, Safina said. “What bluefin tuna do and what they are like is something that most people can never be able to imagine when they think of fish,” he said.

Marine ecologist Carl Safina. (Photo: John Angier)

In 2012, as part of a documentary film project, Safina arrived at such an understanding. He went swimming with Atlantic bluefin off Prince Edward Island in Canada, getting up close and personal with the fish he had seen so many times on a hook. Writing for The Huffington Post, he described how after throwing fish into the water to attract the tuna, he dove in, and “there—incredibly—I fed them herring from my fingertips as they coursed by. The great creatures are swift, agile, and in perfect control of their movements.”

The next day, Safina told me, he and the film crew were back out on a boat, looking for tuna—this time, to catch them. The plan had been for Safina to get on the rod to try to hook one, but he couldn’t do it. “If it ever seemed unfortunate before that the only way we got to see and experience them is when they’re hooked,” seeing a panicked bluefin on the end of a line after swimming with them the day before cemented his feelings about the species. He couldn’t wait to get off the boat.

Acknowledging the wonders of bluefin—that it’s the only warm-blooded fish, that it can swim exceptional distances, that it is so incredibly large—can start to sound like an effort to differentiate it from other species and create an aura of exceptionalism about it. It’s as if to say this fish is the one we should save—not just because it is so depleted but because it is so awesome.

While bluefin may be particularly depleted and particularly impressive, fish throughout the world’s oceans are not faring much better. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 30 percent of the world’s fisheries are overfished, while half of fisheries are at risk of being exploited by illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing.

Dan Barber, chef and owner of New York’s Blue Hill and Blue Hill at Stone Barns restaurants and the author of The Third Plate, feels that considering bluefin in isolation misses this much larger issue. “The problem I have with going after tuna is that if we all stopped eating tuna, we’d still be fucked in terms of the ocean,” Barber said. “We all stopped eating swordfish,” another popular and highly overfished species that had its stock rebuilt after limits were put in place in 1999, “but while tuna are these majestic fish, and they’re [also] worth saving, I’m more interested in how the whole system is screwed. We can shut off the valve of eating tuna and feel victorious? That’s crazy.”

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Barber wants to rethink how we treat animal protein of all types. “We eat them in the wrong proportion,” he said. Instead of creating a meal around a six-ounce piece of meat—be it beef, chicken, or bluefin—Barber, who doesn’t eat or serve bluefin, wants to put vegetables and plant-based proteins at the center of the plate, with meat playing a supporting role. He serves such dishes as breaded carrot cutlets with pork Bolognese—a rejection of the traditional, Frisbee-size chicken parm.

Safina is more philosophical in his thinking about the future of bluefin.

“They aren’t here for us to just decide what we’re going to do with them. That’s not their purpose for existence,” he said. “They’re part of a living world that’s much more wonderful, much more mysterious, much more hard to comprehend than we can really ponder.”