Tuna Diplomacy

Bluefins in Tokyo's Tsiji fish market

Bluefins in Tokyo's Tsukiji fish market


There is a strong likelihood that someone in this generation will be the last human to eat a bluefin tuna. By most scientific accounts, the species hovers on the brink of extinction, if it hasn’t already crossed that line.

Should bluefin disappear, much of the blame will go to an organization called the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT), although Carl Safina of the Blue Ocean Institute gave what some consider a more appropriate name, the International Conspiracy to Catch All Tuna. There are now only about 34,000 tuna swimming in the entire western Atlantic, down 82 percent from levels when the commission started “managing” the fishery.

Representatives from ICCAT’s 48 member countries have been meeting this week in Porto de Galinhas, Brazil, to go through their annual charade of setting catch limits. They will be unveiled when the commission adjourns on Sunday.

I telephoned Dr. Susan Lieberman of the Pew Environment Group, who is attending the session, to see how things were going. She answered just as she was leaving the conference room and heading out to dinner. I’m not sure whether she sounded more frustrated or pessimistic. In an address to ICCAT delegates earlier in the week, Lieberman couldn’t have been more clear about her group’s catch-limit recommendation for Atlantic bluefins: zero.

“Looking at the science, there’s nothing else that makes any sense,” she said. “The current quota is driving the species to commercial extinction.”

Not that ICCAT ever pays much attention to science. “Last year ICCAT’s scientists said that the quota should be no higher than 15,000 metric tons,” said Lieberman. “So they went with 23,000 tons. In reality, with overfishing and illegal fishing, what they actually took was much higher, probably double the quota. What we’re calling for is to suspend the fishery. Let it recover, and then you can go back to fishing. But there’s tremendous opposition, particularly from the European Union, to cutting anything.”

Bluefins are amazing animals. They can live for 40 years and attain weights of 1,600 pounds, yet they blast through the water at speeds in excess of 60 miles per hour. Unlike most fish, they are warm blooded. In other respects, they have everything going against them. That warm bloodedness is what makes their meat so tasty. Tuna grow slowly, and young females lay only a fraction the number of eggs that older ones do. Yet the old fish are the most sought after. They only have two spawning grounds, one in the Gulf of Mexico and one in the Mediterranean Sea, and when they are on them, tuna form tight schools, making them easy to catch.

If ICCAT fails to act responsibly (and I haven’t heard of anyone who is betting that it will), Atlantic bluefins’ last hope for survival could rest with the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES). That group will meet in March 2010 to consider a proposal to list bluefin on its Appendix I, which would ban international trade in the fish. Interestingly, last month ICCAT’s own researchers reported that the species clearly qualified for inclusion.

If science doesn’t convince ICCAT to act logically, maybe commonsense will. “We’re not saying that no one should ever eat bluefin sushi again,” said Lieberman. “We’re saying that if you want to eat it in the future, you’ve got to bite the bullet and do the right thing now.”

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  1. Dianne Jacob says:


    What a sad state of affairs. Questions:
    Can they be declared an Endangered Species? Or would that not help, since it’s only an American declaration, and fishing occurs in Mexico and the Mediterranean?
    Are the Japanese the biggest consumers?
    When we eat sushi in American restaurants, what percentage of the time is it bluefin?

  2. Barry says:

    Good questions, Dianne. Thanks.

    Atlantic bluefins have already been declared “critically endangered” by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. Unfortunately, CITES has yet to list them because of pressure from Japan. If they are listed by CITES this coming March, then international trade in them would be illegal.

    Yes, the majority of bluefin is sold in Japan.

    Here, its high price means you’re most likely to find it in a sushi/sashimi restaurant, thought some is canned (the species of tuna is usually listed on the can’s label). It can also be called tunny, toro, hon maguro, and kuro maguro.

    From an environmental point of view, the best tuna to eat is albacore pole-caught in the Pacific by American or Canadian boats. One source is http://www.americantuna.com.

  3. fatcat says:

    Many bluefin are caught within 30 miles of the N.C. coast…they are more widespread than the article suggests…

  4. Barry Foy says:

    “TUNA: Perhaps the king of all edible saltwater fish, ranging in weight from the single digits to as much as 1,000 pounds. Excellent raw, cooked in any way, or canned, this sleek, majestic, powerful animal is so delicious that we have decided not to waste any of it on future generations.”

    from “The Devil’s Food Dictionary: A Pioneering Culinary Reference Work Consisting Entirely of Lies” (Frogchart Press, 2008)

  5. gaque says:

    mr. estabrook, your blog is great. i just found it and really enjoyed the few articles you’ve posted. looking forward to reading more.

  6. HCC says:

    Really glad to see that you are going to keep blogging, I enjoyed reading your posts on the old site and I look forward to more of them here.

    Important story this one.

  7. I just found you website via Mark Bittman. It will be bookmarked immediately! Thank you for your insight on the Bluefin tuna. I have been a fan of yours for some time via your articles in Gourmet. I will never forget the deeply disturbing article “The High Price of Tomatoes.”
    Regarding the Bluefin:
    It was fascinating to learn about the Bluefin’s size and living patterns. 60 mph!!! That is quite a swimmer for something that weighs in at 1,600 pounds. Too bad they are so easily caught.
    The bluefin has never been my first choice when I go for sushi, I usually ask the chef to substitute something else. I don’t think my substitutions are any more sustainable…..sadly.
    The Seafood Watch Report from Monterey Bay Aquarium is always helpful for us to keep a mindful approach to what we put on our plates.
    Thanks for the inspiration and mindful awareness!


  8. Deb says:

    I was sickened to see bluefin prominently offered on the menu of Sushi-Zen on W 44th between 6th and Broadway. I will write the owners telling them why I’ll never eat there again. In fact, I’ll just keep copies of such a letter in my purse (along with the very useful safe eating card from the Monterey Aquarium) whenever I eat sushi.

  9. Chef Gwen says:

    Thank you for bringing this issue to light. We can make choices at the restaurant and at the markets when we are informed.

    I do have a question. This is Atlantic Bluefin. Is it a different species from the Pacific Bluefin, which the Monterey Bay Aquarium says is also perilously over fished?


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