Tuna: The Hidden Cost of the World's Priciest Fish

The worldwide appetite for tuna is getting out of control, threatening the survival of one of the oceans' most magnificent creatures

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Atlantide Phototravel / Corbis

Caveat emptor
Tuna on sale at Tokyo's Tsukiji market, the biggest fish and seafood wholesaler in the world. Japan consumes some 80% of the 60,000 tons of bluefin caught on average worldwide each year

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The Fish That Became Too Popular
Tuna has been eaten for thousands of years. The Greeks sliced, salted and pickled it, and Mediterranean bluefin was a staple of the Roman soldier's lunch box. But modern Japan's taste for the fish, coupled with rising demand in the U.S., Europe and China, has driven the Atlantic bluefin to become "the poster child of overfishing worldwide," says Monterey's Sutton. The number of breeding tuna in the eastern Atlantic has plunged over 74% since the late 1950s, with the steepest drop occurring in the past 10 years, while the western population dropped over 82% between 1970 and 2007. The Pacific bluefin, whose habitat spans from the West Coast of the U.S. to Japan, is officially in better shape, but one Tsukiji auctioneer estimates the number of tuna coming in these days is down 60% to 70% from what it used to be. Japan's Fisheries Agency does not believe its local tuna are overfished and has steadfastly refused to impose a quota on its tuna fishermen. But in August, Masayuki Komatsu, a professor at Japan's National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies, who has fiercely defended Japan's right to hunt whale, made the heretical claim that because Japan's bluefin is so depleted "Japanese people must change their mind-set."

Japan consumes about 80% of the 60,000 tons of bluefin caught around the world each year — and local economies on both sides of the planet depend on it. Off the coast of the Spanish port of Cartagena, hundreds of seagulls swarm the same patch of water six days a week, waiting for a boat to arrive and uncoil a long, plastic tube into the water. As sardines and mackerel are pumped into the deep, the water begins to churn. Hundreds of bluefin tuna, circling in vast cages beneath the water's surface, duke it out for their daily meal. This is a tuna ranch, a method that started in the Mediterranean in 1996 and now dominates the Atlantic bluefin industry. Today there are 70 registered ranches in the Mediterranean alone (and more in Mexico, Japan and Australia), and the majority of the region's bluefin quota is caught and dragged to cages to be fattened for six months to a year. The ranch off Cartagena, owned and operated by Ricardo Fuentes & Sons, produces some 10,000 bluefin tuna annually, and this year half of them will go straight to Japan.

Tuna-ranching has proven to be a good way to do business — too good, some argue. In recent years, many boats have joined in the lucrative business of taking fish to ranches like these, sometimes netting more tuna than they're allowed to, or catching underage fish that have not had the chance to spawn. "Fattening is the motor that drives overfishing," says Sebastian Losado, oceans policy adviser for Greenpeace in Madrid. Oversight of this kind of illegal fishing — and more generally, stewardship of the fish — has proven weak. Last November, the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT), the Madrid-based body charged with protecting the Atlantic bluefin, adopted a regional quota for 2009 that exceeded its own scientists' more cautious recommendations by nearly three times. Tuna activists read that as a shameless bow to lobbying from countries like France, Italy and Spain, where influential fishermen are loath to see their profits drop. "This isn't a process controlled by countries," says Losado. "It's controlled by companies."

And by lovers of tuna. In Tokyo's upmarket Okusawa suburb, the lunch crowd at the sushi restaurant Irifune has thinned out. Katsumi Honda, Irifune's owner and head sushi chef, rhythmically chops blocks of pink and red flesh behind a counter. Now 68, Honda remembers how, as a boy, his first bite of Japanese hon maguro, or bluefin, inspired him to become a chef. For Honda, it's the only tuna there is. "Once you experience our natural maguro, you cannot go to a conveyor-belt sushi place anymore," he says. In 2001, when the yen was still rolling, Honda helped auction a Pacific bluefin at Tsukiji for about $220,000. It was one of the most expensive fish ever sold in Japan. "Maguro," Honda explains, "has a power to move people."

Beyond Bluefin
As majestic and imperiled as it might be, all the world's bluefin catch accounts for less than 3% of the tuna that people eat. For the $175 that a plate of Honda's maguro runs to, you can buy half a year's supply of canned tuna from the Ocean Canning Corp. in General Santos. Inside Ocean Canning's processing plant, rows of men and women in blue smocks skin, bone and pack thousands of fish into cans sent to customers in Europe. Outside, dozens more would-be workers line up at the cannery's office, applications in hand. If there is one thing that people in General Santos can count on, it's the West's insatiable appetite for canned tuna. Global imports have skyrocketed from less than 3 million tons per year in 1976 to over 3.5 billion today. "Demand is very high," says Mariano Fernandez, Ocean Canning's general manager. "Raw material is the problem."

The raw material is mostly skipjack, a small, unglamorous tuna that makes up about 60% of the world's tuna catch. Of the main commercial species, bluefin, yellowfin and bigeye tuna are primarily sold to the sashimi market; skipjack and albacore land in cans. Over half the skipjack caught each year come from the waters in the western and central Pacific, and while skipjack in the region are officially plentiful, according to the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC) that keeps track of them, talk to anyone in General Santos and you'll hear otherwise. Supplies of fresh, local skipjack dropped 50% last year, says Miguel Lamberte, the port's manager. This August, the amount of both frozen and fresh skipjack being unloaded was at an all-time low, he says. "And it's still going down."

To keep the cans filled, large Philippine boats have gone further and further afield — to Papua New Guinea, to the Solomon Islands — where there is still plenty of skipjack for the taking. Fishing is growing faster in this swath of the Pacific than in any other part of the world, says the WCPFC, as ever greater numbers of boats from Asia, the Americas and Europe are leaving depleted waters for these bluer pastures. "We're getting a lot of boats seeking to come into our region from the Indian Ocean and eastern Pacific because the skipjack is still healthy here," says John Hampton, manager of the Secretariat of the Pacific Community's Oceanic Fisheries Program, which studies highly migratory fish stocks for the WCPFC. "There is good money to be made." But with more boats on the water, many local governments don't have the resources to keep track of how much fishing is being done in their waters, making illegal fishing or overfishing in protected areas tricky to control.

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