The story behind the scenes: about Bluefin Tuna, about us.

Why should you care about this story? After all, we are just talking about a fish, right? I believe this is much more than a story about a fish or specifically the Bluefin tuna—it’s a relevant indicator of how far we possibly have fallen from a rational, caring, sensitive, and respectful society with regard to other living things that we share our planet with. This year, 30,000 different species of animals will become extinct (as well as numerous insects and plants). And, although pollution and poorly planned urban sprawl are factors, the largest single contributing force is your choice of foods as it involves animals—which creates pastured or grazing livestock on land and unsustainable fishing practices in our oceans. You most likely aren’t aware of these statistics or reasons because there has been suppression and mismanagement of information of this type as well as general indifference. I strongly believe, though, that it’s time to increase our collective understanding about topics such as this and begin to effect positive change.

It was announced last Friday (May 27) by the NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration), that Bluefin tuna would not be listed as endangered despite losing 90% of its numbers. This endangered status would have provided the much-needed legal protection in hope of recovery. The tragic decline of this beautiful fish is due to overfishing and illegal practices, poorly designed and ignored ‘quotas’ and false reporting, lack of understanding the species’ complex life, and of course our inappropriate choice of food and the demand for sushi. Even though numerous countries including the U.S. actively harvest Bluefin tuna, Japan purchases 80% of the world’s supply and vehemently opposes any ban or restrictions on tuna. This is a very sad day for these majestic fish, but even a sadder day for all of us in making this illogical decision as stewards of our planet. I, for one, am deeply embarrassed. Embarrassed on two levels. One is that we have relentlessly caught and killed Bluefin tuna to the point of near extinction, strictly because we want to eat them—essentially due to an unnecessary, acquired taste and habit. There is no ‘need’ anywhere in the equation here. And, second, without granting an “endangered” status, we have failed at an opportunity to right a wrong—oblivious and apathetic to what we are doing to another living species on Earth.

There are a couple of key aspects to understanding the full story. First, is a review of why there has been such a massive loss of Bluefin Tuna, and second is how we have managed the problem. Let’s look first, then, at why this fish species has all but disappeared. The story begins with the fact that humans enjoy eating fish, especially tuna. And, similar to many other stories regarding our eating habits as it involves animals, that “enjoyment” or demand creates a powerful economic motive, which then manifests itself in cultural, social, psychological reinforcement as a dietary “need.” This eventually creates skewed, and often illogical policy making to ensure that dietary demand is met with supply. These policies are typically tunnel visioned and multi national in nature because no one country could be seen stepping outside of the box of convention.

Bluefin Tuna grow up to 14 ft in length, weigh up to ½ ton, and can swim 50 mph for long distances, which is why their stocks are governed by an organization composed of many countries, the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tuna, based in Spain. The tuna are managed as two stocks—the western Atlantic and eastern Atlantic which includes Mediterranean Bluefin tuna. For the past 40 years, Bluefin tuna have been caught and eaten without regard to potential extinction. Although many are harpooned and caught by big game fisherman, most commercial vessels catch them by using long line and purse seine techniques (dropping a mile long net and circling a large school of tuna with a boat, catching the entire school and all other sea life that happen to be present-dolphins, sea birds, endangered turtles, etc.). Many more Bluefin tuna have been killed each year than are reproduced—with up to 150,000 tons of total tuna killed in just one year alone. Annual cumulative ‘declared’ catch amounts by tuna fishing vessels from 2006 through 2009 ranged from 21,000 tons to 35,000 tons although the ICCAT admits now that “catches of Bluefin tuna have been seriously underreported” with catches in the Mediterranean area alone now being more realistically estimated at 61,000 tons per year.  The current recommended yearly “sustainable” catch rate by the ICCAT, is 13,500 tons, which is absurd, since there already has proven to be no accurate reporting methods and no enforcement protocols—thus leading to the decimation that is seen today. Committee members admit that “given the quantified uncertainties, the Bluefin tuna stock would not be expected to rebuild by 2019 even with no fishing”, and some scientists predict without protection, the species will become extinct in the Mediterranean by the end of next year (2012). They have already been fished to extinction in the Black and Caspian Seas. Most researchers without economic ties to the tuna fishing industry agree that they do not fully understand the complex life of the Bluefin and associated ecosystems. Many are concerned that their numbers are under further duress because of the BP oil spill and long line activity throughout the species’ spawning grounds in the Gulf of Mexico. Many long line fishing in that area use multi barbed nets that can extend up to 25 miles long catching blue fin tuna and other sea life as bykill. Despite all of the facts, the ICCAT and NOAA feel that this fish needs no protection—hence, the fateful decision last Friday. For the past few months, a review process had been established to help determine whether to grant an endangered species status to the Bluefin tuna. This review was conducted by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) and then submitted to the NOAA for final determination. Much of the final decision was based on the result of interviews requested by the NMFS of the tuna fishing industry itself—those fishermen whose livelihood depend on catching these fish. Those who, no doubt, eat these fish themselves. The following is an excerpt taken directly from the formal correspondence to all commercial tuna fishermen, for a determination meeting about the Bluefin tuna:

Questions attendees may consider include the following: What are your general impressions of the abundance and distribution of Atlantic bluefin tuna over time? If you have experienced a decline or increase in bluefin tuna catches, what do you attribute this to (abundance, distribution, availability, gear changes, regulatory effects, etc.)? Are there particular areas where you typically encounter larger numbers of bluefin tuna? If so, where are they (e.g., inshore or offshore)? Do these areas change on an annual basis? What is the average size of bluefin tuna being caught by different gear types or fisheries? Written comments may also be sent to: National Marine Fisheries Service, Northeast Regional Office, Protected Resources Division, 55 Great Republic Drive, Gloucester, MA 01930.

Unbelievable, isn’t it? Let’s ask the Bluefin tuna fishermen a series of questions to see if they think what they catch everyday for their income and food, should be taken away from them. Brilliant.

One single Bluefin tuna—just one of these fish—may be sold for up to $50,000-$100,000. What can be said about a society or a world that facilitates and then condones extinctions because of greed? In the case of Bluefin tuna and most other endangered animals that we eat, there is no physiologic need whatsoever for us to consume and therefore kill them—it is a fabrication of our culture. The protein and omega three fatty acids everyone expects to get by eating sliced tissue from one of these great fish can easily be found in plant foods and without inflicting pain, suffering or devastation of a species or loss of other interrelated ecosystems. Chia seeds, ground flax seeds, spirulina, and chlorella all have more omega three content per ounce than fish. And, all plant foods will provide you with much-needed fiber and phytonutrients—neither of which can be found in any fish.  Also, every fish has unwanted cholesterol and saturated fat.

Rich Ruais, executive director of the American Bluefin Tuna Association stated, “There are over 5,000 commercial and 15,000 recreational tuna fishermen just in the U.S. stretching from Maine to Texas, and they are relieved NOAA didn’t give the fish an endangered status.” And in the event any one still wonders if politics ever play a role in decisions about food choice and eventual loss of biodiversity, I present the following: “Listing the Bluefin as threatened or endangered would have jeopardized the livelihood of tuna fishermen,” said Senator Olympia Snowe of Maine. What else needs to be said?

It’s time we increase the awareness of others, write our senators and members of congress, set up and sign petitions, align ourselves with organizations such as the Center for Biological Diversity, Greenpeace, and others that truly care about our planet and other living things—it’s time to make a difference! 

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One response to “The story behind the scenes: about Bluefin Tuna, about us.

  1. Hi there,

    Great article… except I must correct/update you on a point that may please you to some extent? Atlantic Bluefin tuna ARE classified as endangered by the IUCN as of this year: http://www.iucnredlist.org/apps/redlist/details/21860/0

    🙂

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