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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In General Santos and ports like it, when the fish start to go, everyone loses: the boat owners, the cannery workers, the exporters, the porters, the truck drivers. As the day winds down at the port, John Heitz walks between rows of small, unsold yellowfin that look, and smell, like they have seen better days. After the good ones go early in the morning, thousands of fish like these are left over, caught too young to have been given a chance to spawn and too far away to get back to dock in time to sell for a good price. To Heitz, it's obvious they're from Indonesia — and most likely have been caught without a permit — but there is nobody here from the government fisheries department to verify that. There almost never is. "All these bad fish kind of stress me out," Heitz says. "It would be so easy to manage, and they're just not doing it."

The fishermen get the worst deal of all: the work gets harder and the pay gets less. Down one lane in a waterfront neighborhood, Danilo Ante sits at home with his girlfriend and four kids between fishing trips. On his last job, Ante took home about $21 for six weeks of work on the high seas. "In the past, there were only a few fishermen," he says. "But now we get fewer fish because there are more boats on the water." Even if his boats keep catching less fish, Ante doesn't have a lot of options in General Santos. "We have to continue. We have to rely on the sea."

An Endangered Species?
In October, Monaco formally proposed to register Atlantic bluefin on Appendix 1 of the U.N.'s Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), a move that would temporarily ban its trade and transfer enforcement from ICCAT to governments. If trade is shut down, so would be fishing, and the Atlantic bluefin would have some time to recover, much as the humpback whale rebounded after being listed in 1975. Monaco's proposal, which all but six E.U. states voted to co-sponsor and which has U.S. support, will go before CITES for approval in March 2010.

Even if that bid fails — and many believe it could — just the threat of CITES may serve as a warning to the tuna industry and to governments. Fishermen, understandably, are not thrilled by the possibility of a ban, no matter how temporary. "We're in a race with the ecologists," says David Martínez Cañabate, adjunct director of Ricardo Fuentes & Sons in Cartagena, which employs about 1,000 workers. "They want to shut down the fisheries, and we want to show them that the quotas and enforcement are working." Cañabate acknowledges there is too much illegal fishing, but believes rogue players can still be controlled. A ban, he argues, would come at too high a price. "Wouldn't it be better to still have the industry?" he asks. "To keep the jobs?"

Even so, the fishing companies know better than anyone that the only way to save the business is to save the species. The Spanish company has invested in the global quest to get bluefin to reproduce and grow in captivity — a task that has eluded all but a few scientists. In a trial run by the Spanish Institute of Oceanography, scientists funded by Ricardo Fuentes have injected Atlantic bluefin females with synthetic hormones to trigger the fish's egg-laying response. This year, the team helped create some 150 million bluefin eggs, of which they took about 3 million to try to hatch. Of those, "maybe 50 [will] survive to the weight of one gram, or about 50 days [old]," says Aurelio Ortega, a biologist on the project. "We're still a long way off. Even five years would be very optimistic."

Some are further along. In 2002, Japan's Kinki University successfully bred and raised bluefin in pens and is now selling small amounts of the farmed fish. This year, Clean Seas, an Australian fishing company, got its southern bluefin living in a land-based tank to spawn eggs that were raised to be fingerlings — a breakthrough in the growth cycle. The success was so unexpected that Clean Seas had to leave all but a few of the young fish to die; there wasn't enough room to let them grow.

Aquaculture is not a perfect solution. Farmed tuna have huge appetites — in Cartagena, it takes up to 22 lb. (10 kg) of seafood to add 2 lb. (1 kg) of weight — and they create a lot of waste. But tuna-breeding is one of an expanding list of ideas being rolled out by scientists, activists, chefs, fishermen and entrepreneurs trying to find a happier marriage between the human demand for tuna and the ecosystem. "There is no one silver bullet to end overfishing because there is no one thing causing overfishing," says Mike Crispino of the ISSF. Major canneries that have signed on to the ISSF, such as BumbleBee, StarKist and Chicken of the Sea, are trying to guarantee that the fish going into their cans come from legal and traceable sources. More and more, customers are being offered ways to play a part too. In San Francisco and Seattle, two restaurants are already running popular sustainable-sushi bars, with menus designed around plentiful, local ingredients. "In the U.S., people think of sushi as being five or six fish that you eat in a particular way," says Casson Trenor, a former chef who opened San Francisco's Tataki in 2008 and later helped Seattle's Mashiko transition into serving better-sourced seafood. In the modern sushi restaurant, says Casson, "we're not respecting these animals."

In General Santos, people do respect the tuna. John Heitz points to a few men hauling yellowfin through the water from small wooden boats. "This is one of the few handline fisheries in the world," Heitz says. It's not flashy, but it follows the rules, pays the bills and, over time, it will keep these great animals in the water. "By eating a certain product, you're part of the problem, or part of the solution." Heitz wants to be on the solution side. Once, when he was scuba-diving off General Santos' coast, two yellowfin torpedoed past. "It was like a motorcycle was going by," he says, crouching slightly, staring straight ahead and moving his shoulders back and forth to mimic the fish's muscular energy. "If I hadn't seen it with my own eyes, I wouldn't have believed it." Unless something changes, he may never see its like again.

— with reporting by Lisa Abend / Cartagena and Yuki Oda / Tokyo

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