The Mediterranean's Tuna Wars

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FISH FIGHT: Industrial companies employ big, expensive equipment to find, catch and fatten tuna; traditional fleets, using techniques from ancient times, above' are no match

In the pitch blackness before dawn one morning in late may, four boats belonging to Diego Crespo Sevilla chug out of a port in southwest Spain to enact an elaborate marine ambush. About 50 fishermen drop hundreds of red markers, attached to nets, which bob for nearly 2 km along the water's surface, forming rows as neat as traffic lanes on a highway. Then they maneuver their boats to form a wide square, and they wait. As the sun rises an hour later, a drama begins to unfold. Nearly 200 huge tuna glide through the lanes until they find themselves trapped atop a net that the fishermen have connected between their boats.

The tuna thrash about wildly in a desperate search for escape, but the captains have already edged their vessels into a far tighter square, sealing off all exits. One by one, the exhausted fish die, their bodies banging against the boats, and their blood turns the water red. On the deck of one boat, Sevilla, clearly delighted, whips out his mobile phone and calls in the day's estimated catch to his managers in Barbate, so that they can negotiate with Japanese buyers waiting in the harbor. The fishermen whoop in delight as cranes hoist their catch onto the boats. "This is our best day this year," says one, adding: "You brought us luck."

Some version of that scene has been going on for thousands of years in and around the Mediterranean Sea. Fishermen on Spain's 4,000-km Mediterranean coast have hunted tuna since ancient times; Roman imperial soldiers based near Barbate packed dried tuna loin and tuna eggs in their kits as a portable source of protein. But a global scramble for bluefin tuna and the world's changing eating habits is threatening the sea's stock of the species. Environmentalists and marine biologists predict that this year approximately 50,000 tons of tuna will be caught in the Med. That represents thousands of jobs — at least 5,000 in Spain's traditional tuna-trapping business alone — and over 50% of the global market for bluefin tuna, a staple of the world's sushi restaurants.

But the jubilation of Sevilla and his colleagues may not last. Like many of the Med's fishermen, life has become far more precarious for them, as they struggle to compete against international companies. As the blistering afternoon sun beats down, the fishermen of Garrucha (pop. 8,000) pull their boats into the harbor with the day's catch, and gather in a café on the dockside. Over coffee they talk for hours. "Fuel prices have risen, and fish prices are really low. We wonder if it is worth it anymore," says Juan Cervantes, 55, who began fishing on his father's boat at age 14, married a local girl at 17, and supported their four children by hauling fish from the Mediterranean. "My father fished. My grandfather fished. Many generations before them fished," says Cervantes, who is president of Spain's federation of about 38,000 fishermen. "But this generation: it is all different."

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