Bluefin Tuna: A Sustainable Catch or Conservation Red Flag?

November 25, 2014

Since the dawn of the industrial revolution, steel and infrastructure has stressed and mauled Mother Nature’s once flawless, “green” face—she’s now had one botched plastic surgery too many. A change so ecologically scarring, it can be measured on a biological sustainable metric—oceanic biodiversity counts.

In lieu of sugar coating an insulin-sensitive topic, I’m going to share with you a statistic that should ring clear—our oceans are ninety-percent less abundant than they were sixty years ago. That conservation red flag I described earlier is at full-mast. Anglers and outdoorsmen alike, may I know introduce you to the aquatic equivalent to the “canary in the mineshaft” that’s worth its weight in gold, the Atlantic bluefin tuna (Thunnus thynnus).

Tunas, especially bluefins, are often portrayed as the jungle cats of the open seas. Few aquatic fauna can compete with their inherit tenacity and seemingly insatiable appetites. And reaching upwards of three-hundred pounds and ten-feet in length, they have little in the way of aquatic predators—we’re terrestrial by every definition of the word.

Atlantic bluefin tunas have been a cornerstone of elegant, up-scale cuisine since its popularity began sky-rocketing in the mid-1970’s. I like to label such cultural culinary customs as “socio economic sustenance”. If you can afford to consume it, you’re somebody—and slinging a serious six-figure plus salary. But where do we, as a sea-loving culture, draw the line between what’s ethically sound and what’s sport? The answer couldn’t be more obvious—is the practice sustainable?

Atlantic blue fin tuna populations have since commercial fishing began on the west coast during the 1950’s. Since that time, we’ve experienced a roller coaster like dive in bluefin biomass counts—seventy-two percent, to be exact. But the organized, conservation-sound fisheries aren’t the ones to necessarily raise a brow to—it’s the ones you aren’t aware of. “Pirate fishing”, as it’s known, is the practice of illegal and undocumented harvesting and cultivation of marine biomass. And it’s running rampant in the bluefin tuna market. Odds are that the gargantuan bony fish you see in any said Asian fish market, selling for an obscene amount of currency, is what I like to call a “ghost fish”—a fish with no paper trail documenting its existence and means of harvest.

But in the wake of such dire figures and immoral practices, there’s a hopeful light shinning bright through the drag nets. Stocked and wild populations have experienced, albeit slight, positive curves in population counts. This positive trajectory toward a sustainable future can be correlated to “tuna tagging”, imposing quota regulations, and successful fishery spawning. We now not only know more about their migratory and reproductive habits, but we’ve successfully culminated that knowledge into captive rearing—the fishery at Kinki University in Japan’s the only one of its kind to produce bluefin in a solely captive environment, thus far.

So, what can you do as an everyday unami-savvy consumer? Two practices echo out more than any other: Demand to know where your tuna source is being harvested from, sustainable or otherwise. And the second is somewhat all encompassing—“When does my demand for this critically endangered fish go from entree to extinction?” Moderation is the key, really. Let’s make sure our children’s children have the opportunity to see these marine powerhouses for generations to come.



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