Bluefin Tuna's High Price Tag (up to $100,000) Means They've Been Fished to the Brink -- Can We Save Them?

The invention of the refrigerator was bad news for the bluefin tuna. So was the invention of the airplane, as well as the creation of modern industrial fishing methods. All in all, technology has not been good for this enormous ocean predator. The world's three species of bluefin tuna -- the Atlantic bluefin, Pacific bluefin and Southern bluefin -- have been eaten sustainably for millennia. And then came the refrigerator.

The same quality sushi-lovers now revere, the bluefin's fattiness, make it prone to going bad quickly if not kept cold. Now bluefin, which would have been made into cat food a century ago, sells for thousands of dollars -- sometimes over $100,000 -- at Tokyo's Tsukiji market. And this week, the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT), is meeting to determine the fate of the Atlantic bluefin for the next year.

By the 1960s, technology had noticeably impacted Atlantic bluefin populations. With purse seine nets working together with spotter planes using radios, fishermen could find and catch groups of mature bluefin as they were spawning. There used to be a spawning ground off the coast of Brazil that crashed in the 1960s. Responding to the decline in population, ICCAT was born. Today Atlantic bluefin only spawn in the Mediterranean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico.

ICCAT, which includes 48 countries that fish for and/or buy Atlantic tuna, meets annually to determine how much bluefin each nation can catch (among other species). No one really knows how many bluefin are left in the ocean, but their populations can be assessed based on how many were caught. And in the decades since ICCAT has attempted to ensure healthy bluefin populations, the bluefin has fallen into even worse trouble. Experts estimate the Atlantic bluefin population has declined up to 85 percent from its original numbers.

Beginning in the 1970s, bluefin were flown from around the world to Tsukiji in Japan. In his book, Bottomfeeder, Taras Grescoe tells how he watched one morning as hundreds of bluefin were auctioned off at Tsukiji. He follows one fish, a 550-pound bluefin sold for $16,800 ("a low price"). The fish is then cut into sashimi by the buyer, an intermediate wholesaler, who hopes to sell it for $81 a pound to restaurants. A single serving of toro -- the prime cut of belly meat -- sells for at least $17 in Tokyo restaurants. With so much money to be made from the bluefin, conservation efforts have made limited progress since the Atlantic bluefin population began to really crash (in the 1970s in the western Atlantic, and the 1990s in the eastern Atlantic).

The bluefins' popularity has meant that there are now fewer large fish. Although the bluefin can reach 1,500 pounds, few have the opportunity to do so. And, unfortunately, points out Dr. Susan Lieberman, director of international policy with the Pew Environment Group, it's the largest fish, the 20- to 40-year-old fish, that produce the most eggs. Even when ICCAT sets quotas for bluefin catches (often quotas far higher than those recommended by scientists), these quotas are violated. "You could say it's the Wild West in the Mediterranean, but there were sheriffs in the Wild West," says Lieberman. "In addition, industrial fleets with longlines up to 100 miles long are vacuuming the oceans."

Much of the fraud and illegal fishing occurs in the Mediterranean, where bluefin are targeted as they spawn, interrupting their ability to reproduce. Bluefin will aggregate in the ocean as juveniles, but as adults, they only come together to spawn. In recent years, even the juveniles are targeted. They are caught in groups and dragged slowly to fattening pens until they double in size. Scientists believe that bluefins do not reproduce until they are 11 years old. By catching juveniles, fishermen are preventing those fish from breeding.

Fishermen in the other spawning ground like the Gulf of Mexico, do not purposely target spawning bluefin populations, but fishermen seeking other species catch bluefin in their longlines, and sell them for big profits. Of course, this year, the Gulf has had some other problems that may impact bluefin numbers. Bluefins spawn in April, May and June, right when the oil was spewing into the Gulf from the Deepwater Horizon spill. One of the first reports about the spill's impact on Atlantic bluefins estimates that the spill wiped out one-fifth of the juveniles.

Earlier this year, nations failed to adopt a proposed prohibition of all international commercial trade in Atlantic bluefin at a Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) meeting in March. This week, at the ICCAT meeting, provides another opportunity to take action to save the threatened fish. Lieberman says that because ICCAT member governments must come to a consensus, the agreements tend to fall to the lowest common denominator. This year, and often in the past, she says, the EU is among the most resistant to strong protection for the Atlantic bluefin. While Japan is a top consumer of bluefin, it seems open this year to a strong agreement. Unfortunately, Japan has been less open to limiting sales of bluefin in its own country. The Japanese say protecting the species is the responsibility of the countries that catch the fish.

The Pew Environment Group is calling for a temporary suspension of all Atlantic bluefin fishing to allow the species to recover and the prohibition of the take of Atlantic bluefin on its only known spawning grounds. "It's pretty disheartening when governments come together and their citizens want them to do the right thing and they don't have the courage or the strength to do it," says Lieberman, referring to a Pew poll that found that more than 90 percent of people in France and Spain want their governments to take strong measures to protect the bluefin. Lieberman believes the world can have its fish and eat it too, but "we just need to take a break for a while" to ensure that we'll have bluefin to enjoy into the future.


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