Tuna battles and culinary extinctions. By:Vikram Doctor

Published by: The Economic Times, India, 25 Mar 2010.

From a historical perspective, it seems dismally appropriate that at last week’s international conference in Doha of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), it was Libya which forced the vote that defeated the proposed ban on the fishing of bluefin tuna. Not that anyone believes that Libya was the driving force behind resistance to the ban. That was clearly Japan, the country that consumes 80% of the world’s bluefin tuna in sushi and such dishes, and where its consumption has been built up as an intrinsic part of the national psyche.

No one was expecting Japan to agree to the ban, but what the vote showed was its furious opposition even to any discussion of the possibility that overfishing of bluefin has taken it to the brink of extinction, and hence a ban to help stocks recover is urgently needed.

Few Japanese eat whale meat, and the government now has vast stocks frozen, which it sells off cheap, all in order to claim that whale hunting is part of Japanese culture and so must continue. Imagine then the determination when it comes to tuna, which many Japanese do eat or would like to, everyday. Japan has ensured that the International Council for the Conservation of Atlantic Tuna (ICCAT), the main regulatory agency for tuna fishing, is so pliable that in 2007 when its own scientists recommended a maximum quota of 15,000 tonnes in the eastern Atlantic and Mediterranean, the council doubled this. No wonder that its opponents call it the International Conspiracy to Catch All Tuna.

Tuna’s problems stem from the nature of the fish. Big tuna like bluefin are extraordinary creatures, sleek predators that move at incredible speeds across all the oceans, making them a truly global resource. This range from cold to warm seas means that they are warm blooded and also store fat to give them their energy, which gives them their culinary appeal. Large tuna is more like beef than other fish, and the most prized part is the fatty belly, which has a melting quality when eaten raw.

It was a taste that few knew till the spread of refrigeration which enabled fast spoiling tuna to be preserved and brought to markets. This coincided with the rising affluence of Japan from the ‘60s, which increased demand for previously rarely consumed dishes like sushi. The Japanese realised that local catches of tuna could not meet the demand, but if they developed techniques to deep freeze fresh tuna and transport it by air, then the whole world was a source of tuna. This has been done so successfully that, as Taras Grescoe notes in Bottomfeeder, his book on the overfishing crisis, Tokyo’s Narita Airport is jokingly referred to as Japan’s biggest fishing port.

This, as has been well documented by fishery scientists, and writers like Grescoe, or Charles Clover     in The End of the Line, has had a cataclysmic effect on tuna stocks. That of bluefin, the most prized type, is estimated to have fallen by 85%, leading to the real possibility that, as Clover notes, “bluefin will be driven either to extinction or the same remnant population as the blue whale (c.1500 individuals).” Since increasing rarity just increases prices as Tsukiji, Tokyo’s central market where the world’s tuna comes to be sold, this simply raises the incentive to go out and get those last specimens. And because tuna do not stay within national boundaries, they can’t be conserved in sanctuaries.

One solution might seem to be the ‘farming’ of tuna, first developed in Australia and hugely pushed by Japan in maritime countries around the world. This is not true farming, since the tuna are not bred, but are collected when young and herded into huge nets, where they are fattened for the market. Few believe this tastes the same as wild tuna, which developed its flavour while swimming huge distances, but the real problem is that, by removing juveniles, it reduces the chance of tunas breeding and reproducing properly.

All this would seem to build a strong case for at least a temporary ban on bluefin fishing, which scientists and conservationists were hoping for in Doha. Given the failure of fishery management systems like ICCAT, the only solution seemed to be a total ban. But the Japanese refused to listen, and this is where Libya stepped in and called for a vote. The scale of the loss that followed, with 68 against, 20 for and 30 abstentions would seem to indicate that votes for the ban were absent, but what has really shocked scientists is the brutal silencing of their views, and the manufacturing of an opposition of developed vs. developing countries, which seems likely to forestall any debate on conservation.

And it is Libya’s agency which makes this so pointed, because by historical coincidence this is where the first documented case of a gastronomically linked extinction took place. This was not with fish, but a plant named silphium that was much prized by the Romans. No one is sure now, but silphium seems to have been a strong smelling plant resin, much like asafoetida (hing). It came from Cyrene in Libya, and seems to have resisted cultivation, so had to be gathered from the wild. The Romans paid huge sums to have it as it was used like hing to give a deep savory flavour to a dish.

But this value was its undoing, and by the 1st century of our current era it had nearly vanished, not least because, as the geographer Strabo recorded, “the natives, in the course of some dispute, erupted and destroyed the roots of the plant.” A few generations later it was accepted that Libyan silphium was extinct, and the Romans were forced to turn to hing, which they had found in Persia. Even today hing rather strangely features in Italian cookbooks as a way to make ancient recipes that would originally have used silphium.

Comparing a fish with a spice might seem a stretch, but the parallels can be seen. As with bluefin, the increasing scarcity of silphium was foreseen, but as with tuna the fact that it only existed in the wild, as a common property, meant that commercial compulsions to gather it ended up destroying it. There is even the sense that the countries that catch bluefin would rather prefer to destroy stocks, rather than let any other country profit from it. And soon, as with silphium, we may be left with only inadequate substitutes, like farmed bluefin, or if even those stocks collapse, then other inferior tunas like skipjack.

India has stayed mostly out of this tuna mess, perhaps because bluefin rarely comes to our seas. Other tunas like albacore and yellowfin are found, and there are Japanese traders in South India who send the biggest specimens to Tsukiji (one of them in Chennai opened the city’s first Japanese restaurant). Smaller tuna come to our markets, as choora in Malayalam or gedar in Marathi, but curiously, it tends to be little valued — one reason given being that its red blood puts off people, precisely because it seems too much like beef! This might be one Indian belief worth exporting, although those who find it in the markets, should certainly try it since the steaks are excellent when grilled.

But if we are not involved in this battle, we can learn lessons from it. I am not sure how India voted at Doha; earlier reports suggested we would support a ban, but I suspect that developing nation solidarity might have pushed us into the abstention side. This would be the wrong position to take because, for all the truth of how unfair it is to make developing country fishermen pay for developed country excesses, in the end extinction is absolute and affects all. Many fishermen, I suspect, who can see the devastation first hand, might be willing to support a government compensated ban — unlike traders who both have more and less at stake, since they are the ones who make the real profits in the tuna trade, but can always move on to the next global fish to exploit, in ways that local fishermen cannot.

Most of all we need to apply the lessons to our own fish. The same collapse that is being seen with tuna, is being seen with popular Indian fish like pomfret. Not only is the total catch collapsing, but as anyone who goes to markets knows, the average size of pomfret being sold has shrunk — exactly because, as with tuna, juveniles are being caught in small meshed modern nets, and the chance of pomfret stocks to rejuvenate and replenish is being destroyed. Yet the price of pomfret has never been higher in markets and restaurants, and the trade will not stop — until, as with bluefin, it will be too late.

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