THE LIMITS OF THE SEA
The Ferrari of the Ocean
Once, the ocean was thought to be inexhaustible—a limitless source of edible sea creatures. Now, as many marine creatures see their populations plummet, many are beginning to rethink the veracity of such belief. And perhaps no fish is currently in greater danger than the Atlantic bluefin tuna.
Long celebrated as one of the ocean’s most magnificent creatures—it has been nicknamed, alternately, “Ferrari of the Ocean” and “Tiger of the Sea”—the Atlantic bluefin can grow up to ten feet long, weigh 1,500 pounds, and swim at speeds of fifty miles per hour and more, allowing it to traverse the breadth of the Atlantic ocean in a matter of weeks.
But now the Atlantic bluefin is fighting for survival, as lax regulatory standards and a burgeoning demand from the sushi industry have hastened a sudden decline in the species. Some scientists believe that the powerful, speedy fish now teeters on the brink of extinction.
International Conspiracy to Catch All the Tunas
Not so long ago, bluefin was considered second-class meat, used for cat food and canned tuna, garnering only a few cents per pound. Then, in the 1960s, the fish found its way onto the foodie map, coveted by sushi chefs worldwide. Today, the bluefin commands more than $50 per pound, sometimes more. In 2001, a single fish sold for more $170,000 at a Tokyo auction.
ICCAT (the International Commission for the Conservation of the Atlantic Tuna), the agency charged with regulating fishing of the bluefin, has come under scrutiny in recent years, as some have accused the organization of catering to the interests of a powerful international fishing industry at the expense of the bluefin’s future health. Critics points to an incident in 2008, when ICCAT scientists recommended a quota (a limit) of between 8,500 and 15,000 fish per year in Eastern Atlantic waters. ICCAT instead set the quota at 22,000. In response, one scientist cleverly renamed the commission, “The International Conspiracy to Catch All the Tunas.”
To understand what is happening to the bluefin, one must take a closer look at the species, which is divided into two stocks: the Eastern stock, which spawns and feeds in the Mediterranean sea, and the Western stock, which spawns in the Gulf of Mexico and feeds off the Atlantic coast of North America. The Western bluefin is much larger than the Eastern—typically weighing between 600 and 1500 pounds compared to 100 or 130—and is in much greater peril: scientists say the population of Western stock has declined by as much as 97% since the 1960s, as compared to about 50% for the Eastern.
Scientists sounded the first alarm bells for increased regulation of bluefin fishing practices as early as 1982. Scientists urged ICCAT to act quickly to protect the Western stock, which they thought to be in rapid decline. ICCAT responded by reducing the Western quota to a few thousand, and left the Eastern quota much higher. It was a kind of devil’s bargain: let the Eastern stock bear the brunt of bluefin demand while the Western stock was allowed to rebound.
But this approach, new research has shown, may have been flawed. Individuals from each stock regularly cross the ocean to feed—a Western bluefin, then, might travel to the Mediterranean in pursuit of food, before returning to the Gulf of Mexico to spawn. Scientists, in light of this discovery, are worried that their previous perception of the respective populations may have been skewed. Inadvertently including Eastern fish in their count of Western, they may have perceived a more robust Western stock than actually existed. And by not taking into account the fact that Western fish routinely wander into Eastern waters to feed, they may have allowed the Eastern quotas to be too high.
Clearly, the official quotas needed to be amended, which is what ICCAT scientists recommended in 2008—recommendations which were subsequently ignored. A United Nations attempt the following year to prohibit the trading of bluefin across national borders—a proposal which would have made the fish vastly less valuable—was roundly defeated.
The Limits of the Sea
The BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico this past spring was bad news for everyone involved—the local fisherman, local and national politicians, oil executives, and, of course, the whole range of regional marine sea life. But it was arguably the worst for the Western bluefin, which spawns exclusively in the Gulf. It is unclear what the long-term consequences will be for the species, but some scientists predict the worst.
It is clear that we are now seeing the limits of an exhaustible sea. With fishing technology comparable to tools of war—sonar-equipped fish aggregating devices being one example; enormous buoys which attract sea life and are able to be monitored from afar—the contemporary fishing industry is now almost literally conquering our oceans.
Atlantic bluefin is not the only marine species in the midst of potentially catastrophic decline. The halibut, swordfish, and marlin are three more large marine predators that, barring a sudden change of policy by international regulating bodies or some kind of unprecedented grassroots mobilization, do not appear long for this earth. And so, as with other environmental challenges facing us today, it remains up to us, as individuals and as societies, to decide what we feel we can live with—and what we can live without.