Ranched tuna feeding in a floating cage in Turkey.

The Tuna Tragedy

posted by Veronique Koch on 22 January 2013

This month has seen many tuna-related headlines that have caught the world’s attention. The first came January 5th when a new record of $1.7 million was set for the price at sale of a Pacific bluefin tuna at the Tsukiji market in Tokyo. Kiyosh Kimura bought the tuna and he also holds the previous record, but that fish sold for $736,000. At 489 pounds, the price per pound was a little under $3500 for a fish destined to be sold as sushi in Mr. Kimura’s Sushi Zanmai chain. He is said to have placed such a high bid at auction to “encourage Japan”.


A few days later, a scientific report by the International Scientific Committee for Tuna and Tuna-like species showed that 96.4% of the Pacific bluefin tuna stocks had disappeared since fishing began for this species. This popular fish is targeted by Japan (who consume half of the world’s catch), Mexico, South Korea, and the United States and is unsustainably fished due to fishermen targeting known spawning and nursery grounds in the Western Pacific ocean. This means that many of the tuna caught will have never had a chance to reproduce. The $1.7 million tuna was still a baby. It could have grown to three times its size.


Conservationists see this sale as a course towards extinction, and “The Pew Environment Group believes the most responsible course of action is to immediately suspend the fishery until significant steps are taken to reverse this decline,” said Amanda Nickson, director of the global tuna conservation at the Pew Environment Group.


The Pacific bluefin tuna is one of many species facing extinction and it begs the question of how long we will still have the luxury of eating it, because clearly, at $3500 a pound, the price of a used car, this fish has become a luxury good. Though it is unclear whether Mr. Kimura will be making his money back, probably not.


One proposed solution to continue enjoying bluefin tuna without contributing to the overfishing problem is to farm them.  In the documentary “Fish Meat”, Dr. Ted Caplow and Dr. Andy Danylchuk investigate whether eating farmed Atlantic bluefin tuna is a viable option. Atlantic and Pacific bluefin tuna were once considered the same species, but differentiated as two subspecies in 1967. Unfortunately, the way Atlantic bluefin tuna are farmed now, they are still putting pressure on wild stocks because they remove young tuna from the ocean to be put into pens before they can spawn, and are fed feed made of wild fish. Don’t worry,  there are still some ways to eat tuna sustainably.


As writer and conservationist Carl Safina recently wrote for a post on the National Geographic website (the same company that produces the tuna fishing show, “Wicked Tuna”, as I wrote about in a previous post), fishing for tuna has become an illness, an obsession. Safina suggests another way to “encourage Japan,” rather than spend $1.7 million on an undersized fish, why not put some of that money towards its conservation to ensure that future generations can enjoy this profitable delicacy?

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