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Maguro Madness

Our insatiable appetite for tuna sushi has pushed bluefin to the brink. Now it's up to us to pull it back. 

By Alastair Bland

They can swim in bursts of up to 60 miles per hour and make the Atlantic crossing in less than two months. But activists are warning that the end is in sight for the mighty bluefin tuna unless diners drop their chopsticks on the double.

This huge predator, bigger and faster than most other fish, was once king of the sea, but rampant pillaging and pirating of the resource by factory-size ships is now driving the Atlantic bluefin tuna the final mile toward commercial extinction. In November, representatives of the nations that fish for Atlantic bluefins gathered for a conference in Morocco. After a week of deliberating the future of the lucrative yet failing industry, they agreed to set a bluefin harvest quota for the coming years that far exceeds the maximum sustainable take recommended by marine scientists, and in the eyes of some environmental groups, that decision could be the final nail in the coffin.

"They chose to sacrifice this fish for short-term gain," says Mark Stevens, senior program officer with World Wildlife Fund (WWF). Stevens notes, however, that a current boycott movement among restaurants and retailers in the European Union could help turn the tide. Another hope is for the intervention of CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, the organization that halted trade of elephant ivory in Africa in the 1980s.

The bluefin may be best known as toro to those who love its pink and buttery belly meat or as maguro to those who prefer the darker muscled flesh. The sushi industry's rise in the past three decades has equaled the bluefin's fall. In the height of their abundance last century, bluefins commonly grew to nearly 1,500 pounds in the Atlantic Ocean. In those days, few ate the big tuna, and sport fishermen often paid to have the worthless carcasses trucked away after photo ops; many a giant bluefin of the era was ground into cat food.

Then people gained a taste for the rich flesh. The fleets mobilized, demand skyrocketed, prices followed and the rest is history. Today, experts of science and of industry alike acknowledge that this fish is quickly on its way toward commercial extinction.

Yet fisheries commissioners hardly seem to care. At its annual meeting in November, ICCAT, the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas, showed more concern for conservation of the industry itself than of the fish that supports it. ICCAT's 46 member nations all touted the common goal of striking an agreement during the summit on how to efficiently manage, document and curtail the bluefin catch while assuring the survival of the bluefin fishing industry. Scientists had firmly warned ICCAT reps that the East Atlantic bluefin stock will continue to crash if harvested at a rate of over 15,000 metric tons annually. They further suggested that a take of 7,500 tons or less would be optimal, allowing the population to actually rebuild. ICCAT simply ignored the advice and went with a go-ahead plan to catch 22,000 metric tons of bluefin tuna in 2009, reducing the quantity to 19,950 tons in 2011. ICCAT also disregarded suggestions to halt fishing in the Mediterranean during the peak spawning season in June.

"Dollars in the bank tomorrow overruled everything else," says Phil Kline, oceans campaigner with Greenpeace.

Quota Games

Bluefins are recognized as three separate yet closely related species around the globe—Thunnus thynnus in the Atlantic, T. orientalis in the Pacific and T. maccoyii down under. Of all the stocks, the west Atlantic bluefin is in the worst shape, at just 10 percent of its 1970s population level and dropping fast. A full decade ago, biologists sternly advised a shutdown of the west Atlantic fishery. In turn, U.S. tuna exporters just hired their own analysts to reinterpret the data; their scheme worked, and in the end the quota was actually increased.

However, the west Atlantic quota of 2,700 metric tons doesn't even affect fishermen anymore. Fishing has gotten so bad that the United States can no longer catch its allowed limit; the United States only landed 27 percent of its share in 2005 and just 10 percent in 2006. Thus, the limit does not actually serve as a limit, observes Carl Safina, co-founder and president of Blue Ocean Institute. As he recently wrote on his tuna blog, "[The quota] remains higher than the catch, so the quota is not a limit. It's like limiting your pasta intake by reducing your limit from 10 pounds of spaghetti per meal to 5 pounds per meal. Nobody is eating 5 pounds, so it's not a limit."

In the Pacific Ocean, the pressure on T. orientalis is tremendous. Tag-A-Giant, a small operation based in New York, has been tagging Atlantic and Pacific bluefins for 12 years. Biologists catch the animals on rod and reel, fit them with expensive devices that record movement and return them to the water. For the data to be read, the tags must be retrieved—and that hasn't been a problem in the Pacific Ocean, says Shana Miller, Tag-a-Giant's science and policy manager; of 600 tags inserted into the belly cavities of Pacific bluefins, she says, fishermen have returned more than half to collect the $500 reward.  

"That gives you an idea of how many boats are fishing for them," Miller says.

Scientists depend largely on landing reports for their data, but the figures are only as accurate as fishermen are honest, and in recent years industry watchdogs have noticed a huge discrepancy between the global bluefin catch reports and what Japan, the world's greatest bluefin consumer, imports each year. For example, the 2007 East Atlantic quota of 29,500 metric tons is now believed by investigators to have been surpassed to the level of 61,000 metric tons due to illegal fishing. This trend may reverse, though, as Japan has recently adopted a policy of turning away undocumented bluefins.

'Give Them a Break'

Most bluefin tuna are sold to the sushi industry. Eventually, the carcasses are portioned up into four loins each weighing 50 to 100 pounds, and sushi chefs with knives sharp as razors and hands deft as sculptors' slice them into the trimmings that finally appear before diners as artfully presented sashimi. The highest grade of bluefin meat is the toro, or belly meat, where the red muscle is marbled by creamy white fat.

Casson Trenor believes that change must come at the will of consumers—and quickly. A fisheries conservation activist and a San Francisco sushi restaurateur himself, Trenor believes consumers themselves are as responsible for the bluefin's plight as the decks on which the tuna die.

"If we have any hope of saving this fish, we need to stop eating it. I mean, we need to stop," he says. "Chefs need to take responsibility for this, and we need to stop exploiting the hell out of this fish and give them a break."

To encourage sushi fans to quit eating such unsustainable luxuries as bluefin, Trenor has authored a new book, Sustainable Sushi: A Guide to Saving the Oceans One Bite at a Time. The Zagat-size handbook has just hit shelves and is meant to be used at the table as a translation guide to the often mystifying prose of sushi menus. The 160-page guide allows readers to quickly thumb through 40 chapters, each of which details a popular sushi menu item. In less than a minute, one can reference a fish's true biological identity, its various Japanese pseudonyms, its culinary value and the consequences of eating it.

Bluefin tuna may be the number-one no-no of the sushi industry, but other fishes are to be avoided as well, says Trenor, whose own sushi restaurant, Tataki, has created a menu void of threatened species and products of dirty aquaculture. Trenor warns never to eat hamachi, which in most cases is not actually yellowtail, as commonly believed, but Japanese amberjack caught in the wild and transferred to enclosed pens for feeding and fattening. Farmed salmon is never a safe option, nor is unagi. Shrimp farmed in tropical nations, especially in Southeast Asia, is the cause of entire river ecosystems collapsing. Longlined swordfish, mahi mahi and tuna should be avoided, too. 

"All these items happen to be the top sellers in the U.S. sushi industry, so you can see we're in trouble," Trenor says.

As the wild bluefin tuna nears the vanishing point, industry scientists have devised bluefin aquaculture systems that may be marketed as "sustainable" but which actually fall far short of sustaining anything. "Ranching" is the most destructive method, a system by which wild juveniles are netted and transported alive en masse to holding pens, some of which reside off the coast of northern Baja California. The captive bluefins are fed wild sardines until they reach market size and are then slaughtered.

"These so-called farms are making the situation worse," says Trenor. "We're just stealing the juveniles before they can breed."

Feeding captive bluefins is another problem. As one of only several warm-blooded fishes, the bluefin possesses a rapacious metabolism; for each pound of bluefin that comes out of a tuna ranch, an exorbitant 25 or 30 pounds of sardines and anchovies goes in. This astronomically high "fish-in-to-fish-out" ratio is now contributing to the overfishing of the smaller fishes so essential to the ocean's food web.

No Help in CITES

Should CITES grant bluefin tuna Appendix 1 status—the same enjoyed by the tiger, giant panda and many marine mammals—most trade of bluefins would halt. However, WWF's Stevens says that CITES has historically shown reluctance to protect fishes of economic significance, and he notes that CITES has twice declined to intervene in the trade of Chilean sea bass. CITES' next meeting is scheduled for 2010.

Until then, the ICCAT will handle the fate of the bluefin. Though the commission's stated objective is to conserve and sustainably manage bluefin tuna, Safina has quipped that the acronym could ably stand for "International Conspiracy to Catch All Tuna," and he charges that ICCAT is operated by "ponderous self-important, cynical men who move and think like escargot." Kline, too, sees the commission as more of a threat to tuna than a protector.

"ICCAT has proven itself to be an abject failure. It can't by any means manage tuna. All ICCAT can do is kill them."

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