She’s beautiful. She’s fast. She’s smart. But she may soon be gone forever. The bluefin tuna has fallen victim to the global sushi vogue.
“When it comes to bluefin tuna, oceans are like the Wild West,” says Phil Kline, a veteran commercial fisherman who now works for Greenpeace. “There’s no enforcement of rules, and fishing companies are making a huge profit.”
In theory, depleting fish is illegal, but for bluefin tuna, the reality is very different. In 1940, the world had 1.2 million metric tons of bluefin tuna. Sixty years later, it had less than 0.2 metric tons.
“Fishing methods have become very efficient,” says Richard Ellis, author of the recently released book Tuna: A Love Story. “But the market is the driver. The sushi craze is the main reason for the near-extinction of the bluefin tuna.”
The bluefin, whose speed, intelligence and torpedo-like shape makes her the queen of large ocean fish, lives in the Mediterranean, in the Gulf of Mexico and the North Atlantic. Fishing companies bring their catch to Japan, where it’s auctioned and shipped to restaurants around the world. Bluefin is big business: A single fish often goes for $50,000. (The record is $173,600).
Though a movement is beginning to protect the tuna — most recently, the European Commission took steps to list the Atlantic and Mediterranean as endangered with the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (thus forcing a ban) — other attempts to slow the annual catch have failed.
Just last week, EU countries such as Spain, Italy and Greece (all home to major tuna fisheries) blocked a fishing ban on the Atlantic and Mediterranean species — a testament to the hunger the public has for this fish.
“It’s full of flavour and has a perfect texture that melts like butter in your mouth,” says legendary sushi chef Toshio Suzuki.
“It produces really exceptional cuts that few other species can compare to.” Suzuki, of Sushi Zen, was one of the first Japanese chefs to introduce sushi in the United States.
But bluefin catches are fast declining. If the world doesn’t stop eating bluefin tuna, the World Wildlife Fund estimates the species will be extinct within three years.
Mediterraneans catch the most
• Most Mediterranean countries catch more bluefin tuna than they’re allowed. In 2006 ICAAT’s scientist committee warned that bluefin catches must not exceed 15,000 tons a year if the species is to recover from overfishing. (ICAAT is the international organization responsible for tuna-fishing management.)
• Instead, ICAAT approved the EU’s proposal for a quota of 29,500 tons. In 2007, legal and illegal bluefin tuna catches amounted to an estimated 61,000 tons.
– Source: ICCAT (International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas)