Published by Time magazine, March 30, 2010
I ate my last bite of bluefin tuna the other night. It came at SHO Shaun Hergatt, a luxurious restaurant in the Wall Street area known for its eponymous chef’s penchant for using the best ingredients from around the world. The bluefin was no exception. Served on a pristine plate with fennel gelée, young ginger and artisanal soy, this was pure o-toro (bluefin belly), the pinnacle of fishly flesh, a barely dressed bombshell that exploded on my palate with incomparable taste and texture. It was awesome. But I have to stop eating it. And so do you. (See the top 10 most dangerous foods.)
The Atlantic bluefin tuna, Thunnus thynnus, is a big fish, weighing up to 1,000 lb (450 kg). It’s been around for more than 400 million years, which means it is older than the trees, older than the Himalayas, older than the Atlantic Ocean itself. The species isn’t cute. Its expressionless eyes show neither pain nor curiosity, and it doesn’t do tricks at aquariums. But it tastes really, really good, and it’s on the verge of becoming extinct. Already depleted from overfishing, stocks are down 60% just over the past decade, and the species might be gone within a few short years. The reason? Japan, the world’s most tuna-loving nation, recently submarined a global export ban that nearly every industrialized nation had agreed to. Earlier this month, 175 nations met in Qatar to discuss the fates of various endangered species, with the U.S., Europe, all scientific opinion and the best interests of the fishing nations all on the side of a respite in commercial bluefin-tuna fishing. Japan orchestrated a campaign to defeat the proposal, in much the same way the U.S. did its level best to put the kibosh on emissions reduction at Kyoto some years ago — approaching the conference in bad faith and determined, come hell or high water, not to address the problem. (Read about a move to save the bluefin tuna.)
These weren’t tree-hugging Greenpeace activists that Japan was fighting, either, but pragmatic officials trying to preserve an industry with the current life expectancy of Jesse James’ next marriage. If you make money from fishing bluefin tuna, and bluefin tuna go extinct, you are out of business. It’s really not complicated. The southern bluefin is in even worse shape than its Atlantic counterpart, and scientists still haven’t figured out a way to effectively farm a fish that weighs more than an NFL lineman, is entirely carnivorous and takes 30 years to reach its maximum size. Of course, fishermen can switch over to albacore or yellowtail or other, smaller tunas, but nothing makes money like bluefin, which at auction can bring more than $100,000 per fish; in any case, no species is immune to overfishing. The Japanese may have chosen not to see what they’re doing to the fish they love best, but I’ve read about what’s happening, and now you have too. And we have to exert ourselves if our children are to enjoy the pleasure of gobbling up o-toro the way we did.
It’s no small sacrifice. Refusing to eat bluefin tuna isn’t one of those empty gestures, like a celebrity wearing a relief-aid ribbon on a $12,000 couture gown. The reason bluefin became the go-to fish for chefs from Tokyo to Tampa is that it tastes so good — and more important, from the point of view of restaurant owners, because it looks so good. What self-respecting sushi restaurant would be caught without a thick ruby slab of tuna under its sneeze guard? How would unimaginative hotel chefs provide their guests with poolside tartare platters if they couldn’t use bluefin?
Some of the world’s leading seafood virtuosos, like the immensely influential Eric Ripert at New York City’s Le Bernardin, won’t serve the fish for ethical reasons. Others, like Paul Bartolotta of Bartolotta Ristorante di Mare in Las Vegas, one of Le Bernardin’s few peers as a seafood temple, find bluefin boring. “We have basically never served tuna here since the day we opened,” the chef says. “Aside from the sustainability issues, it’s just so overused. You see it everywhere from the Cheesecake Factory to, well, everywhere. The same tuna with the same sweet-spicy Asian marinade. Are you kidding me? Can we not get any more original than that?” (See pictures of what makes you eat more food.)
A lot of restaurants want to stop serving bluefin but feel they can’t be caught without it. They know it’s wrong, but they don’t want to lose their tuna-lusting customer to the guy down the street. Even the most popular (and hence most influential) restaurants do it: after Nobu in London was called out by its celebrity clientele last year for serving the tuna, the restaurant kept it on the menu but added a line noting that the species is “environmentally challenged” and suggesting that customers consider an alternative — a wussy solution that pleased nobody but allowed the restaurant to save face while keeping its less conscientious patrons happy.
But are people really going to stop dining at Nobu if they can’t get bluefin? Half the time they don’t even know what kind of tuna they’re eating anyway. I recently had albacore sashimi in Michael Schulson’s Izakaya at the Borgata in Atlantic City, N.J., and it was incredible — rich, silky, firm and, better still, something I hadn’t already eaten 10,000 times. If a casino restaurant can do sushi like that, why can’t everybody? And we diners have to do our part by refusing to order wild bluefin or even making our peace with a farmed tuna, if one ever make its way to the fish market.
That still might not be enough to save the tuna, any more than driving a Prius will halt global warming while coal-fired factories run night and day in Chongqing. But it might be enough to make serving wild bluefin seem uncool, wasteful and uncreative. Which it is. The Japanese are not immune to questions of style; maybe they will follow our lead out of mere embarrassment. Or maybe they won’t. But either way, the loss of a creature that has been living here since before the continents formed won’t be on my hands. Don’t let it be on yours either.