Sustaining the ‘Wicked Tuna’

Michael Conathan explains why the best way to save the overfished bluefin tuna is to support New England’s artisanal fishery.

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National Geographic's new series "Wicked Tuna" puts the spotlight on the bluefin tuna, a fish that has become one of the world’s poster children for overfishing. (AP/Monterey Bay Aquarium)
National Geographic's new series "Wicked Tuna" puts the spotlight on the bluefin tuna, a fish that has become one of the world’s poster children for overfishing. (AP/Monterey Bay Aquarium)

Bluefin tuna is one of the poster children for overfishing. So one might expect that “Wicked Tuna,” the National Geographic Channel’s new series about bluefin tuna fishermen in Gloucester, Massachusetts, would take a fairly conservation-minded perspective on fishermen’s efforts to capture these majestic giants, some of which can grow to more than 1,000 pounds and more than eight feet in length.

In fact, National Geographic deals its viewers a fairly even-handed look at the bluefin tuna. And ultimately, the takeaway message may be that ironically the best way Americans can help save this fish is by supporting New England’s artisanal bluefin fishery.

As I discussed in a column last year, bluefin is an internationally managed species. The fish migrate across entire oceans over the course of their lifetimes, through international waters and in and out of multiple countries’ jurisdictions. So their management falls to an intergovernmental body: the International Commission on Conservation of Atlantic Tunas, or ICCAT. This organization’s effectiveness is questionable at best, and the word most often used to describe it is “dysfunctional.”

Despite rampant international mismanagement, however, the U.S. bluefin fishery is indisputably the most sustainably managed in the world. The vast majority of the bluefin caught in the United States is landed in Maine, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts. U.S. fishermen used to use large nets known as purse seines to target schools of bluefin, and while such gear is still permitted, from 2007 to 2011 less than 200 bluefin have been landed by purse seining. Just 40 metric tons total. Hand gear—rod and reel or hand-thrown harpoon—is the primary fishing method used in the domestic bluefin fishery today, while the remainder of landings come as bycatch in longline fisheries targeting swordfish and other tuna species primarily in the Gulf of Maine and the Gulf of Mexico. We even include requirements to make those fisheries more bluefin friendly by using specialized gear known as “circle hooks” and “weak hooks” proven to reduce bycatch of bluefin and other nontarget species like sea turtles.

Meanwhile, European fisheries frequently use purse seines—massive nets that encircle entire schools of juvenile tuna. The small fish are subsequently transferred to holding pens or “ranches” where they remain until they reach marketable size. This means the fish are removed from the ecosystem before they have a chance to spawn—an inherently unsustainable practice.

In recent years, the tremendous value of the fish themselves has made ICCAT’s job more difficult. As “Wicked Tuna” participants discuss, the fish they pursue in the North Atlantic can be worth as much as $20,000 apiece. In 2010, of the more than 13,000 metric tons of documented worldwide harvest (the illegally harvested fish likely drive that figure significantly higher), U.S. fishermen landed just more than 600 metric tons of bluefin, which sold at the dock for $9.3 million, not quite $7 per pound.

While $7 a pound is a pretty nice price—lobster by comparison averages between $3 and $4 per pound at the dock—it’s nowhere near the vastly inflated prices that are widely reported in international media on the rare instances they occur. Earlier this year, for example, a single fish sold for a record price of $736,000 in Tokyo’s Tujiki fish market—an unheard-of $1,238 per pound.

Far from being the norm, this is literally a lottery ticket fish. Traditionally, in Japan, a big spender will make a splash bidding an exorbitant amount of money to buy the first bluefin of the year caught off a region in northern Japan thought to have the best tuna in the world. This year, in the aftermath of the devastating earthquake and tsunami, Japanese restaurateur Kiyoshi Kimura bellied up more than $1,200 per pound for the prize fish to “liven up Japan” and “help it recover from the tragedy.”

American fishermen would never see such a price for their catch. Making a purchase like this is a way to draw attention and generate headlines and free publicity; it doesn’t reflect the actual value of the product. Trevor Corson, author of The Story of Sushi, said of the first-fish phenomenon, “in short, it’s money spent on advertising, not on fish.”

As much as the bluefin tuna needs a break from excessive fishing pressure, which is enhanced by factors such as the first-fish phenomenon, as long as we enforce science-based quotas, we’re never going to drive a species to extinction fishing with rods and reels and harpoons.

And U.S. fishermen can’t solve the international problem on their own. An end to rampant overfishing must come from the places where it is still occurring—most notably the eastern Atlantic and the Mediterranean. Accordingly, ICCAT must take a stronger stand on lowering the allowable catch in the eastern Atlantic and the Mediterranean. In the interim, consumers shouldn’t punish the good actors in the domestic fishery for the sins of their international brethren who refuse to let their politicians make the tough choices.

Allowing a sustainable fishery to exist sets an example for others. It shows they can make money without vacuum cleaner tactics. If we shut down our fishery, there will be nothing for other countries to point to as an example of reasonable, sustainable fishing practices. In this case, if we try to make bluefin an “all or nothing” proposition, the political reality is that other nations will choose “all” over “nothing” every time.

So ironically, the best way to preserve bluefin is to allow New England fishermen to keep catching it in small numbers, keeping within the scientifically based quotas. Fortunately for bluefin lovers, that means we also have to continue eating it. Though with that opportunity comes great responsibility.

I’ve written in the past about the need to know where your fish comes from and to actively seek out U.S.-caught seafood. Perhaps in no other fishery is this as important as it is for bluefin tuna. If you order it, you must ask where it’s from, and if the restaurant can’t definitively say it’s U.S. caught, you should just say no.

“Wicked Tuna” displays the passion, stewardship, and community inherent in the New England bluefin fishery. Even when the fishermen are hotly engaged in the poker game of their daily chase—high-liner Captain Dave giving his competitors false coordinates to send them on a wild goose chase rather than share his cache of “marks” or hot spots—we still get a sense that these guys are a team pulling in the same direction. Even in their insults. “He may be a great guy on land,” a crew member on a competing boat says of Captain Dave, “but on the water he’s a dickhead.”

Now that’s some wicked pissa New England brotherly love.

Michael Conathan is Director of Ocean Policy at the Center for American Progress.

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Michael Conathan

Director, Ocean Policy

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