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

  • 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

    Nearly every day at dawn, John Heitz falls a little bit in love. Leaning over a 150-lb. (70 kg) yellowfin tuna, the 55-year-old American, whose business is exporting fish, circles his forefinger around its deep eye socket. "Look how clear these eyes are." He traces the puncture where the fish was hooked, and the markings under its pectoral fin where it struggled on the line. "Sometimes," Heitz says, "I see a good tuna, and it looks better to me than a woman."

    Heitz, a blond Illinoisan who sports a fading Maui & Sons T-shirt and a tuna tattoo on his bicep, is an out-and-out tuna man. That's why he lives and works in General Santos City in the southern Philippines, one of the planet's great tuna-fishing ports. By 6 a.m. on an August morning, the heat at the docks — a raucous, clanging, blood-and-guts tangle of 10,000 buyers, sellers, porters and men whacking rusty knives into silver skin — is unforgiving. Boat crews crouch in patches of shade on deck, smoking and waiting for their wages. The boats' hulls, sloshing with bloody ice water, are almost empty, only a few shiny bellies lolling in the slush. Porters have already hoisted thousands of tuna onto their shoulders and carried them to the exporters; they swarm around the fat, fresh ones whose slick layer of slime still smells like the ocean, and whose scales gleam with a hint of the yellow flush they had when blood was pumping inside them.

    It's one of the few quality hauls of yellowfin that has come in all week. Heitz jumps into the scrum of insults and jokes flying between the buyers and the sellers. Quality testers sink metal rods into the fish, pulling out samples of pink meat that they rub between their thumb and forefinger and smell. The biggest and best tuna will go for about $700 wholesale, and get whisked away to be washed, beheaded, gutted and packed with dry ice to catch the 10:30 a.m. flight to Manila. By the next day, the fish will be in Tokyo, Seattle or California. By the next night, its meat will be poised between chopsticks.

    A Worrying Trend
    The world's tuna trade is an awesome 21st century hunt. Ancient Greeks used to stand on bluffs to watch for schools of tuna passing the shore. Today, fishing fleets stalk the fish across thousands of miles of ocean with helicopters, GPS and sonar. In 1950, about 600,000 tons of tuna were caught worldwide. Last year, that figure hit nearly 6 million tons, the prize of a chase that plays out from the Philippines to Canada's Prince Edward Island.

    For some species of tuna, the chase is becoming unsustainable. In September, the European Commission recommended that the E.U. support a temporary suspension of the global trade of Atlantic bluefin tuna, a majestic cousin of the yellowfin sold for tens of thousands of dollars a head for its coveted sashimi meat. At current fishing rates, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) estimates that Atlantic bluefin that spawn in the Mediterranean could disappear from those waters as early as 2012. But the recommended ban was shot down by E.U. member states including Greece, Cyprus, Malta, Spain, France and Italy — all countries with a stake in the trade. "The hunt is relentless," says Michael Sutton, vice president of the Center for the Future of the Oceans at the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California. "These are the wolves, grizzly bears, lions and tigers of the ocean. If you take the top predators out, the ecosystem begins to get out of balance." On land, when top predators like lions or wolves die off, lesser ones like baboons or coyotes flourish, throwing an entire food chain off. The same goes for oceans. Scientists believe stocks of southern bluefin around Australia have likely fallen over 90% since the 1950s and could continue to drop. Of the world's 19 non-bluefin commercial tuna stocks, half are now overfished or at risk of going that direction, according to the International Seafood Sustainability Foundation (ISSF), a partnership of canning companies, scientists and the WWF.

    That's bad news not just for the oceans, but also for John Heitz and millions of others who make a living from these fish. General Santos earned its motto as the "Tuna Capital of the Philippines" when fishermen could go out in the morning and return at dusk with two or three 150-lb. (70 kg) yellowfin or bigeye, two tuna species that, like the bluefin, are sold for sashimi. Now, even the smallest of those tuna are at least a two- or three-day trip out to sea. These waters, like so many others, have been fished too hard for too long. "General Santos lives and dies by tuna," says Heitz. "Now it's getting less and less. People just have to wake up and smell the coffee."

    General Santos is not the only place dependent on tuna. At 6 a.m., an auctioneer in Tokyo reaches up to ring a brass bell, alerting a group of blue-capped, rubber-booted men perusing rows of gray frozen tuna that the bidding is about to begin. He starts to chant out the tuna's serial numbers, written on squares of paper stuck to their bellies. One bidder raises his hand with an offer that the auctioneer weaves into his mantra: "4-5, 4-5, 4-5." That's 4,500 yen — about $50 — one of many offers made for every kilo of the frozen fish on the block that morning. At Tsukiji, the world's most famous fish market, tuna are sold at prices equivalent to Ivy League educations. In one of hundreds of stalls, wholesaler Keisuke Morishima dismantles a fresh 271-lb. (123 kg) bluefin snared off Oma, a small Japanese town. Bluefin can live for decades, growing more than 10 ft. (3 m) long, weighing up to 1,500 lb. (680 kg), and with enough muscle to propel them at 40 m.p.h. (65 km/h). Throwing his weight into the fish as he makes a cut, Morishima is philosophical. "Some think it's endangered, and I understand their position, but what can you do by worrying about it?" he asks. He'd like all his bluefin to come from Japan, but if there are none on any given day, he says, he'll buy one caught somewhere else.

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