Annihilation of a Fish. By: Matt Rigney, Author, In Pursuit of Giants.

Published by the Huffington Post ( ) on March 19,2010

There is a series of photographs called “The Chase” taken off Nomans Land Island, near Martha’s Vineyard, in 1986. The photographs show a giant bluefin tuna, weighing over 900 pounds, leaping, missing, leaping again, and capturing an Atlantic bluefish about two feet long.1 The giant bluefin has all the design characteristics of a fighter jet: supremely tapered shape, short fins like abbreviated wings, extreme speed.

Those photographs offer a rare glimpse into the true majesty of these creatures. That bluefin was about nine feet long, with a burst speed roughly ten times its body length–90 feet per second, or about 60 miles per hour, through water. Water is 780 times as dense as air. Thanks to its supreme physiology and immense strength, that 900-pound animal was able to fly through its liquid medium at highway speed with a self-generated equivalent of over 50 horsepower.2

Most of us will never experience bluefin tuna like this. We understand them only as small, red, rectangular chunks of flesh in sashimi and sushi, or as deep reddish-purple tuna steaks. This is like trying to understand a human being by a lock of their hair. In other words, it is completely inadequate to the task of knowing something meaningful about a top oceanic predator and one of the world’s great fish, about what they mean to the ecosystem and to us, beyond their role as food.Top ocean predators, like bluefin tuna, play a critical role in structuring the overall balance of relationships throughout the food web below them.3 Much like wolves in the Rocky Mountains4, the ocean’s top predators are believed to exert a governing and stabilizing effect on the ecosystems they inhabit. Looking at it from a purely human-centric point of view, robust populations of these predators mean increased overall benefits to us in the form of healthy oceans, food, recreation, and jobs.

There are other varieties of bluefin tuna in the Southern Ocean around Australia, in the Indian Ocean, and in the Pacific. But there is only one northern bluefin tuna. It is an Atlantic fish, the king of tunas, a fish Hemingway called “the king of all fish, the ruler of the Valhalla of fishermen.”5 The northern bluefin is capable of growing to over 1,000 pounds, with supreme physiological adaptations for speed, trans-oceanic migrations, conversion of prey fish to accessible energy, and warm-blooded life in the world’s temperate oceans. The largest ever caught on rod-and-reel weighed 1,496 pounds and was landed off Nova Scotia in 1979. It was nearly 11 feet long.6

The stock of breeding age fish in the Mediterranean and off the coasts of Europe is thought to have declined by more than 85% from its historical maximum, with a strong likelihood that that figure is above a 90% decline.7 A significant portion of that has happened in the last decade. This, the Mediterranean stock, continues to plummet because of rampant overfishing in the form of illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) harvesting. The fishing continues because there is a hell of a lot of money to be made by capturing the tuna, fattening them in “ranches,” killing them, and shipping them to Japan. Individual fish of the highest quality and weighing several hundred pounds have fetched prices at Tokyo’s Tsukiji Market in the vicinity of $175,000. Japan consumes an estimated 80% of the world’s northern bluefin tuna8 and is the engine that drives its destruction. It is a process enabled by the failure of the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) to set and enforce appropriate limits based on science, to guard against illegal fishing, to impose negative consequences on its members who fail to abide by their agreements, and to insulate its decision-making from the corrosive effects of politics. ICCAT’s membership is comprised, in part, of the very nations in the EU and North Africa that profit from the out-of-control harvest and trade of this species. These nations have no true incentive to abide by the limits set by ICCAT and to which they have agreed.

As of yesterday, March 18, 2010, the annihilation of the northern bluefin tuna reached its final phase. Representatives of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), meeting in Qatar, voted not to list the bluefin tuna as endangered. The ICCAT scientific committee, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization ad-hoc expert panel, and the CITES Secretariat all agree that the level of decline suffered by the northern bluefin satisfies the criteria for endangered species status, putting this fish in the same category as the African black rhino and the Himalayan snow leopard. And yet a majority of CITES member nations voted it down.

This is not surprising news. The chances were slim from the outset that the ban was likely to happen. The Japanese signaled early on that they would ignore any CITES listing, thereby keeping open the largest market in the world for this fish. The powers that stand to gain from continued trade are set against any real measures to curb the overfishing of Mediterranean bluefin. This, despite the United States coming out in favor of a CITES I ban earlier this month, joining France, the UK, and other nations.

At what point will we put a stop to this? At what point will common, everyday citizens rise up, outraged, that the natural world is being plundered beneath their noses, and demand that it be stopped and that those responsible be held accountable? Those who benefit in the short-term, whether out of greed or need, will not stop it. Politicians, as we saw today and have seen over the 40 year history of ICCAT, will not stop it, and certainly not as long as they believe the issue is about jobs, and that jobs (and their own re-elections) must come first.

The jobs issue is a deception. The number of jobs lost–in sport and commercial fishing alone–on the eastern seaboard of the United States because of the collapse of our bluefin tuna population in the 1980s is just one indication of the costs of bad fisheries management. It is no different in the Mediterranean. The destruction of that bluefin fishery over the last 10 years has laid waste to a resource that supported the cultures ringing that sea for millennia. It represents both the loss of income to tens of thousands of fishermen and hundreds of local communities (at an estimated annual cost of $400 million per year 9), as well as the radical concentration of wealth in the hands of a few–to the tune of $16.4 billion between 1998 and 2008.10

The value of the Mediterranean bluefin hunt during this time dwarfs the estimated value of the global trade in shark fins between 1996-2006 ($8.3 billion); the global trade in whale meat between 1990 and 2000 ($8.2 billion); and the global trade in elephant ivory at its peak between 1978 and 1988 ($1.02 billion).11

This has been called “an international disgrace governed by a looting rationale” and an operation run by “an international tuna cartel”.12 However you look at it, the numbers speak for themselves. What is happening and will continue to happen in the Med is an economic heist, a political scandal, and a moral outrage. It brings shame and disgrace upon every nation participating in it, and upon the members of every nation who do nothing while being aware of the problem.

What we as global consumers and citizens must appreciate–and what ICCAT, Japan, the European Union, the United States, and any other country that trades in northern bluefin tuna must also appreciate–is that the worth of any species is far beyond its reducible monetary value. The balance of an ecosystem requires the balance of relationships among the various members and parts of that ecosystem, including human beings. If and when we throw those relationships into imbalance, the economic costs are staggering, to say nothing of the moral costs of allowing this to happen on our watch. These considerations do not even take into account the spiritual loss to our children and grandchildren, future generations, of having been deprived of the chance to encounter, firsthand, one of the wonders of nature. Or to derive employment or sustenance from the controlled, sane harvest of that animal. Together these things amount to an incalculable loss in the column titled ‘quality of life.’

Scientists have warned for years that the depletion in stocks puts the bluefin in jeopardy of commercial extinction. While true extinction of an oceanic species is difficult (but not impossible)13, commercial extinction is more readily achieved. Commercial extinction happens when humans devastate a fish stock to the point that the stock loses its ability to recover and rebuild its population. The species contracts in range, remains at very low numbers, and may even lose its niche in the ecosystem to other competing species. It is effectively displaced and marginalized, and the various benefits we derive from their continued, healthy existence–spiritual awe, recreational joy, economic prosperity, nutritional intake, moral integrity–disappear and are never regained. We need only look at the North Atlantic cod off Canada for confirmation that this can happen. We need only look at the history of bluefin tuna in the Atlantic to know that it is happening here and is in its final phase.

So I ask you who are reading this: what will it take for you to join the fight to preserve these animals, even though you may never witness them as they appear in all their glory? Surely we can understand the wisdom of preserving them for reasons beyond our own personal satisfactions.

The destruction of the northern bluefin in the Mediterranean has been made possible by a number of factors: the development of tuna ranching and improved purse seine technologies; a willful lack of transparency, adherence to science, and enforcement of limits by the members of ICCAT; deep corruption in the political-economic process; ignorance and apathy on the part of the general public about the problem, and a collective, global culture that has yet to draw the moral and legal ‘line in the sand’ on corporate and personal greed.

Now that the CITES listing has failed, it is time for those of us who give a damn about this species, and about the pillaging of the oceans, to meet the challenge and put our outrage into action.

The flow of bluefin into Japan, more than for any other nation, must have negative consequences. For a nation purportedly sensitive to the agonies of public shame, the Japanese heap it upon themselves with their marred history of “scientific” whale hunts and their cold disregard for their primary role in the destruction of bluefin. If the Japanese government will not acknowledge its role in driving the annihilation of these fish, then it must feel the consequences, which should include a boycott of Japanese cars, electronics, and other products. Tourists considering Japan as a destination might do better to spend their time and money in a country like New Zealand, which has a far better track record of stewardship of the oceans.

And it is time to stop eating northern bluefin tuna, anywhere, in any country. Demand of your fish monger or restaurateur to know what kind of tuna they serve, where they get it, and how it’s caught, and don’t simply order something else if they serve bluefin tuna. Consider leaving the restaurant, telling them why you’re doing it, and finding a dining establishment with more awareness and more of a conscience.

It must be appreciated that measures like this, if successful, will have economic impacts on men and women who may not deserve to bear those direct costs. To these people, I would ask them to consider the following paradox and to think about actually joining the cause: the paradox is that if there are no bluefin tuna left, they will bear the costs anyway. Every population of bluefin tuna in the Atlantic has either disappeared or decreased in spawning stock biomass by 80% or more. The stock of Brazil was gone by the late 1960s. The North Sea stock was gone by the 1970s. The western stock off the US and Canada collapsed in the 1980s and has never recovered. The only one left is the Mediterranean stock, and it has declined by 85% or worse. If we don’t feel the pinch now, we will feel the pinch later and it will be permanent. If these measures at abstinence, boycott, and public shame are successful, and there are more bluefin in the future, then the future of the fish and the employment we derive from them is more secure. Had the CITES nations approved the Appendix I listing, it would have allowed the continued harvest and sale of bluefin tuna within nations and only banned the international trade in bluefin. That opportunity has been lost.

It is time for the public at large to become accurately informed about what is happening to the ocean and to this planet as a result of how we live. The Internet is as much a rumor mill and a source of misinformation as it is of real facts. One of the bits of misinformation circulating is that the 2008 ICCAT stock assessment of all northern bluefin in the Atlantic put the estimated population at roughly five million fish. With a population of that size, one might rightly ask, how is there any danger of the fish becoming commercially, much less actually, extinct?

The devil is in the details. The 2008 ICCAT stock assessment estimates population across all age groups of the stock. The purported population of five million bluefin would naturally include a majority of immature fish, ranging in size from a thumbnail to near maturity, that will never live to reproduce, when all forms of mortality are considered. It is the breeding stock figures that matter when gauging the bluefin’s viability, not the total population figures, because it is only those that live to breed that offer hope for the species. It is those breeders that have declined so precipitously.

The time is long overdue for large scale action on this issue. The time is also long overdue for us, as interconnected global societies, to wrestle with and decide, in binding law, the question of the limits we must abide by in the extraction of resources from the natural world. It is insane to continue with business as usual. We must understand–as has been demonstrated so many times–how short-term gain at the expense of long-term stability and sustainability is not only foolhardy, it is dangerous and destructive to our collective interests–for ourselves, our children, as nations, and for the future.

In the meantime, it is time those who benefit from the continued trade in northern bluefin tuna to pay a price that outweighs their financial gain.

[1] Confirmed in a conversation with Paul Murray, photographer, 11 March 2010. The bluefish the tuna was chasing was estimated to be about 20 pounds.
[2] Wardle, CS, et al. 1989. The muscle twitch and the maximum swimming speed of giant bluefin tuna, Thunnus thynnus L. Journal of Fish Biology. 35 (1): 129-137.
[3] Heithaus, MR, et al. 2008. Predicting ecological consequences of marine top predator declines. Trends in Ecology and Evolution. 23 (4): 202-210.
[4] Chadwick, DH. 2010. Wolf Wars. National Geographic Magazine. March: 34-55.
[5] Hemingway, E. Tuna Fishing in Spain. Toronto Star Weekly. Feb 18, 1922.
[6] International Game Fish Association Records Database. The world record bluefin was 128.5 inches long, 99 inches around.
[7] World Wildlife Fund bluefin scientist Sergi Tudela     on CITES Appendix I WebEx, 8 March 2010, citing 2009 ICCAT SCRS Report. These rates of decline have some degree of uncertainty, but they are felt to be accurate with a confidence level of 95-100%.
[8] ATRT, SL (Roberto Mielgo Bregazzi).
[9] Estimates supported by Advanced Tuna Ranching Technologies (ATRT) analyses and interview with ATRT’s Roberto Mielgo Bregazzi, 3 March 2010.
[10] These figures and those of the paragraph following are taken from an ATRT report “Requiem for a Bluefin: An International Trade Analysis (1998-2009)”, Advanced Tuna Ranching Technologies, SL. The US dollar figures are calculated from figures initially presented in euros and converted according to a dollar:euro conversion rate of 1:1.3, based on currency conversion rates in March, 2010.
[11] Statistics from “Requiem for a Bluefin: An International Trade Analysis (1998-2009)”, Advanced Tuna Ranching Technologies, SL. Sources cited: Shark Fins: Clarke, S et al. 2007. Social, Economic, and Regulatory Drivers of the Shark Fin Trade. Marine Resource Economics. 22 (3): 305-327. Whale Meat: World Wildlife Fund TRAFFIC. Elephant Ivory: Raffalovich, M. White gold: the ivory trade ban.
[12] Roberto Mielgo Bregazzi of ATRT.
[13] Dulvy, NK et al. 2003. Extinction vulnerability in marine populations. Fish and Fisheries. 4: 25-64. Also, email exchange with marine ecologist Carl Safina, President of the Blue Ocean Institute, 12 March 2010.

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