Tuna of all stripes seem deserving of a sizable break today.
Google bluefin, yellowfin, bigeye or albacore and nearly every reference links to some report or international agency, governmental body or scientific group insisting—loudly—that if we don’t seriously back off fishing tuna right away, many of its species will soon be gone.
Photo: Ho New/Reuters
Even the pirates of the environmental movement, Sea Shepherd—who has proven so successful in changing the way much of the world views whale hunting in the 21st century—has run into brick walls in its efforts to ride to the rescue of the last wild tuna.
In one of the big bluefin battlegrounds of the summer—the Mediterranean Sea, off the coast of Libya—Sea Shepherd’s goal of shutting down the fishery there has been stalled after its lead ship, the Steve Irwin, was caught up in a lawsuit filed by a Maltese tuna company and detained.
The Steve Irwin sailed into Libyan waters in June to try and stop anyone from taking bluefin. Dubbed “Operation Blue Rage,” the campaign figured that a country roiled in civil war wouldn’t be paying much attention to illegal fishing off its coastline. Which was true. One of the group’s tactics was literally ramming open-water pens holding bluefin and freeing them. Unfortunately, the Maltese-based company Fish and Fish Ltd. claimed it had rights to be fishing there last summer (2010), granted by Libya’s Rural Affairs Ministry, and is suing Sea Shepherd for damages, claiming a ramming of its pens caused 600 big fish, valued at more than $1 million, to swim into the wild. The ship is being held until a $1.4 million bond is posted.
The group’s website says it is “not particularly worried” about the suit and claims its actions were taken against an “illegal fishing operation.” But the threat that the boat may be held indefinitely is real.
“Let’s not forget that lawsuits can be filed for many reasons,” the site continues, “This may have happened for financial redress, or simply because Sea Shepherd has had serious success exposing the illegalities of operations profiting from the destruction of bluefin tuna and they want to interfere with their activities.” The EU has not been completely supportive of the group, with a spokesman announcing that “no one else” can carry out “inspections.”
Meanwhile, the Swiss-based Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN)—the top dog when it comes to attempting to protect endangered wildlife and plant life—has recently added five of eight tuna species to its Red List of Threatened Species. The timing of this announcement was linked to a meeting in La Jolla, California, of the world’s five regional fisheries management organizations, intergovernmental groups set up to try and make sure tuna fisheries remain sustainable.
The IUCN’s official predictions were expectedly grim: Southern bluefin stocks have crashed with little hope of recovery, gaining it a “critically endangered” listing. Atlantic bluefin is now officially “endangered.” With high-tech factory ships continuing to hammer bigeye (“vulnerable”) and yellowfin and albacore (“near threatened”) it would appear the only way to save tuna, according to the IUCN, is to close all fisheries until stocks are rebuilt.
But if you pay close attention to the dire pronouncements, which legitimately attempt to steer citizens and consumers in the right direction, it becomes clear that no amount of dire warnings and listings seem to be making much of a difference.
How much tuna do you guess is caught worldwide each year? Somewhere close to 4.5 million tons. The most prolific take is skipjack, which some call the rabbits of the sea, which accounts for 60 percent of the total tuna take and mostly goes into the tins found on supermarket shelves. The different varieties of bluefin—once so abundant along the coast of the U.S. that it was sold for a nickel a pound for cat food, but is now so highly prized by sushi and sashimi lovers that it can sell for $1,000 a kilo—makes up less than one percent of the global tuna haul.
One thing making all the listings and warnings frustrating is the inability of fishermen around the globe to agree to leave it be. In Canada, for example, top wildlife advisers (the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada) say bluefin on both Atlantic and Pacific coasts should be listed as endangered. But at the same time the country’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans proclaims its bluefin fishery is the best managed in the world and should be left alone. (Last year 5,000 tons of bluefin were caught in Canadian waters). Like so many environmental debates, it’s often hard to know which statistic or professional opinion to trust.
The debates may rage, but Sea Shepherd remains fearless in its rescue mission. While the bluefin-saving ship is held at dock in Lybia, the group has recently dispatched another one of its ships, the Brigitte Bardot, to the Faroe Islands (Operation Ferocious Isles) to protect and draw attention to the risks facing pilot whales.
(For the rest of my dispatches, go to takepart.com
The question arises with more and more frequency these days: To sushi, or not to sushi?
Photo: Stone/Getty Images
There is a growing contingent of conscientious mariners out there who refuse to eat all seafood, arguing that sea life has been so injudiciously hammered in the past five decades that if it’s going to survive, we need to give it a true break. That path, of course, puts at risk the livelihoods of 30 million-plus global fishermen and the related industry they support.
Others, attempting to choose wisely, try to navigate by choosing so-called sustainable seafood, which leads them away from the big-name predators (tuna, salmon, swordfish, mahi-mahi) towards smaller, less-popular thus still prolific species.
But in the booming sushi trade, opting for that admittedly delicious tuna and other at-risk fish can prompt lively pre-dinner brawls, even among the most enlightened carrying smart phones armed with apps to help steer them towards the “safest” fish on the menu.
With bluefin season heating up in the Mediterranean, the question is even more relevant. Two weeks ago Sea Shepherd’s “Operation Blue Rage” sent two of its boats, the Steve Irwin and Brigitte Bardot, to the coast of Libya to help monitor the waters and take direct action if it observes illegal tuna-ing.
“Any tuna fishing vessel we find off the Libyan coast will be operating illegally,” said Sea Shepherd’s boss, Paul Watson, as his boats steamed away from the coast of France toward Libya. “We will cut their nets, free the fish, and document and report their operations to ICCAT and the European Union.”
A decade ago it became clear that bluefin would soon be extinct if the hunting continued apace, and little has been done to slow the take, even as the popularity of the species booms in sushi restaurants around the globe, from Stillwater to Moscow (and particularly in Japan, which is said to consume 80 percent of the planet’s bluefin). Some marine protectors stick with the prediction that bluefin will be commercially unavailable by 2012…next year!
A small and hopefully growing number of chefs and restaurants have taken bluefin off the menus. At the same time, necessary further protection for the species continues to erode. In May the Obama administration refused to list it as endangered, which conservationists were calling for; late last year European quotas for tuna were reduced, though by just a few tons, even as worries that any decrease in legal takings would result in a rise in illegal fishing.
New York Times food critic Sam Sifton got into the middle of the debate a couple days ago when reviewing the New York City restaurant Masa Masa, which he revealed serves “an enormous amount” of bluefin, and which he admitted to happily sampling during several visits.
So back to the question: To sushi or not to sushi?
Casson Trenor’s book (Sustainable Sushi: A Guide to Saving the Oceans One Bite at a Time) and website (sustainablesushi.net) may be the best place to start building your argument. He operates San Francisco’s only sustainable sushi restaurant, Tataki, and recently hosted a sustainable seafood feast at the National Geographic Society in D.C.
On his recent birthday (32) he blogged: “I talk a lot about moderation on this blog—staying away from critically endangered delicacies like bluefin tuna, not eating sushi four times a week, and all that—and I stand by it. But there’s a time and a place for celebration, and that’s important too. Not that I would eat bluefin tuna even for a holiday banquet, but I just might gorge myself a little bit (or a lot) on some sort of sustainable delight and fall asleep on the couch. My birthday is not a good day to be a crawfish, believe me.”
- Photo: Stone/Getty Images
I think what we’re seeing is the emergence of a list of “good sushi” and “bad sushi.” Or should we simply put it all off limits…for now? Where do you fall?
Sifton’s review elicited a slew of responses. A majority, but not all, sided with the fish. Others suggested that if you don’t like what’s on the menu, vote by not walking through the door. Have a look for yourself, and weigh in here.
(For the rest of my dispatches, go to takepart.com)
Nonprofit advocate organization Oceana has launched a big, new, years-in-the-making campaign against what it calls “seafood fraud.” Its team of scientists has concluded that more than 70 percent of the seafood we eat in the U.S. is mislabeled, often on purpose.
Photo: Dado Ruvic/Reuters
Americans should have the right to know what is on their plates. If you eat seafood, the impacts of the global fraud uncovered by Oceana are being felt in the seas, in your pocketbook, and in your health.
The report, “Bait and Switch: How Seafood Fraud Hurts Our Oceans, Our Wallets and Our Health,” concludes that most people, including many buyers of seafood for grocery chains and markets, don’t really know where the fish came from … nor can they recognize one species of fish from another.
At the Washington, D.C., press conference announcing the report, Oceana laid out skinless filets of halibut next to fluke, red snapper next to hake and farmed next to wild salmon. Virtually no one was able to tell the difference. A taste test—between tilapia and vermilion snapper, cooked in lemon caper sauce—fooled everyone. If the meat is frozen or canned, human ability to distinguish tilapia from pollock disappears.
The over-arching goal of “Bait and Switch” is to require proper labeling on all fish, informing consumers exactly what they’re buying and where it comes from. Right now, illegal fishing operations—which mislabel and smuggle, falsify paperwork, and profit off bribery and corruption—evade all but the most rigorous testing. Increasing the difficulty of accurate labeling, most fish is processed at sea, and species are obscured long before the boat ever hits a dock.
If you’re paying to buy an expensive fish caught in the wild (salmon, for example), but are being sold a filet grown cheaply on a fish farm in China (tilapia), you’re the loser. On the health side, certain species are more prone to industrial pollutants and some contain allergens you should know about when ordering or buying.
If we can’t pinpoint where fish are coming from, we can’t monitor and control overfishing, wreaking havoc on abused fisheries. According to Oceana, the U.S. is “an easy target for dumping illegal, poor quality and unpopular seafood because controls are few and far between.” Eighty percent of the seafood consumed in the U.S. comes from overseas.
Solutions are within reach. DNA testing of fish is doable and not overly expensive. The problem is introducing testing in the field and enforcing its use.
I spoke with Beth Lowell, the Washington D.C.-based campaign director of the Seafood Fraud campaign, and she was optimistic that the report will result in real change.
TakePart: What’s been the response to the “Seafood Fraud” report?
Beth Lowell: Great. The media continues to be interested in the story and not just from the environmental reporters, but also consumer and food reporters as well. For the most part, the reporters that I have talked with have been surprised at the amount of seafood fraud in the US market.
TakePart: What about the seafood industry itself?
Beth Lowell: The seafood industry has been relatively supportive as well. Fraud is an issue they know is a problem for the industry. National Fisheries Institute, an industry organization, formed the Better Seafood Board—one of area they focus on is fraud. Seafood fraud hurts the honest fisherman and honest seafood industry players.
TakePart: What’s next?
Beth Lowell: This week the Senate Commerce Committee is scheduled to consider S. 50, the Commercial Seafood Consumer Protection Act, which would be a first step in addressing fraud in the U.S. In February 2009, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report on seafood fraud. This bill, S 50, implements many of the GAOs recommendations. We are supportive of the bill.
Overall, we are looking for improved traceability in the seafood chain so that fish can be tracked from fishing vessel to plate. This will help eliminate species substitution and other forms of fraud.
Want to make your voice heard? Write the Food and Drug Administration and tell them you want safe, legal, honestly labeled seafood.
With the gobal hue and cry over the not-so-happy future of the Atlantic bluefin tuna—over-eaten and over-fished, the species is at great risk of disappearing from the wild—it’s somewhat remarkable that the almadraba, spring’s annual bluefin hunt off the southwest coast of Spain, continues.
Photo: Francisco Bonilla/Reuters
The hunt—which has been conducted in the same place and in the same manner since Phoenician traders arrived 1,000 years before Christ—coincides with the annual northern migration of bluefin to lay eggs in the Mediterranean.
Each spring Andalusian fishermen herd the big, fast-swimming fish—adults can be 10 feet long and weigh more than 1,400 pounds—into a maze of nets leading to the shore. The nets funnel the fish into a central pool, or copo. Once the fish are inside the pool, a net below is raised. The big fish are forced to the surface and slaughtered by men with sharp knives.
The fish’s gills are slit. The churning water turns blood red. The bloody scene is reminiscent of the dolphin slaughters at Taiji, Japan, so graphically shown in The Cove.
Environmentalists generally ignore the historical catch, maybe because the numbers taken each year are relatively small, and the hunt is only for local fishermen.
Factory ships that overfish international waters are the big problem for bluefin. The ships persist in decimating bluefin populations in large part because sushi lovers around the world continue to demand the ever more endangered fish.
Even the almadraba has taken a hit. “In recent times we have had seasons where almost no tuna were caught,” says Marta Crespo, spokeswoman for a fishing association based in Barbate.
Andalusia’s traditional fishermen want the tuna population to stay healthy. The fishermen can’t imagine springtime without their tuna hunt; so as long as there are tuna, the almadraba will continue.
In other parts of the Mediterranean—a prime shopping region for processing boats looking to buy Atlantic bluefin and transport it back to fish-hungry Japan or the U.S.—bluefin are lured into nets where they are kept, and fattened, for more than a year. Those mobile nets can be dragged by trawlers from one bay to another. Some tuna is still caught on longlines.
When you see photos or video (warning: gruesome) of the almadraba, you imagine protestors on nearby beaches, with placards and megaphones, attempting to stop the massacre. Some people who have the temperament to oppose such gruesome fishing tactics tolerate the almadraba’s violence simply due to its historical heritage.
Even with protests, it may well be the extinction of the bluefin that ends the annual ritual.
(For the rest of my dispatch, go to takepart.com)
Natural disasters and war may bring short-term relief to certain fish species.
Japan’s earthquake/tsunami wiped out many of the whaling communities in the country’s northern coastline, which—temporarily—gives the whales a break. While the coastal communities rebuild, fishing of all sorts is on hold.
Now come reports that Libya’s ongoing civil war may help a hammered population of bluefin tuna off the North African coastline. In Brussels, the head of the EU’s fisheries—Maria Damanski—has called for a suspension of Libya’s bluefin fishing rights, worrying that the endangered tuna population could be decimated in the “confusion of war.”
May through June is spawning season for Mediterranean bluefin; the fishing is said to be so good off Libya, thanks to sophisticated tracking technologies, that boats often catch limits within 10 days and can haul in $700,000 worth of bluefin in a single day.
The Libyan government banned foreign fishing for bluefin off its coast in 2004, creating an exclusive economic zone (EEZ). But the French tuna-fishing boats quickly negotiated new licenses and continue to fish the Libyan coastline.
Damanski is worried that with the Libyan government’s attention on a raging civil war, no one will be policing its waters—which prompted her call for a suspension of bluefin fishing. This season’s catches are already meant to be limited by new quotas imposed by the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT). The ICCAT oversees tuna fishing in the Mediterranean and last year lowered catch totals from 13,500 to 12,900 tons, ignoring calls from conservation groups for more serious reductions.
Damanski admitted last week that “88 percent of European fish stocks, measured against sustainable yield, are overexploited.” Her comments run against the grain of recent reports in the U.S. that overfishing in its EEZ is being overstated.
Worries about Libyan bluefin come on the heels of a new report from the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) that looked at 519 species of fish in the area and pronounced 43 at great risk, blaming indiscriminate net trawling—which takes every fish in the sea, whether it’s wanted or not. Most of the “critically endangered” are in the shark and ray families.
Separately, the report claims that—victims of heavy overfishing—the reproductive potential of the big bluefin tuna has been halved over the past 40 years.
(For the rest of my dispatch go to takepart.com)
Given the hammering Japan’s northern coastal towns took from the earthquake/tsunami, and the ongoing radiation leaks from Japan’s Fukushima nuclear plant, the future of fishing from the region has come into question. Just like the fishermen in the Gulf after the BP spill, seafood providers across Japan are concerned about public-relations fallout—even if its fish stays available and safe, i.e. nonradioactive.
Tokyo’s Tsukiji Fish Market, the world’s biggest—selling more than 400 species of fish six days a week, a $5.5-billion-a-year business supplying 40 million Japanese fish-lovers—has not yet backed off any species, but buyers have fallen off due to a lack of fish.
The immediate concern is that so many of the small towns in the north—and their boats, docks, jetties, nets, tackle and fishermen—are gone. Fish farms and onshore processing plants have been wiped out. Hundreds of thousands of wild fish washed onto shore, dead. Scallops, sardines, oysters, seaweed, bonito and even shark’s fin have largely disappeared from Tsukiji in the past week.
The normally packed aisles of the sprawling market—the equivalent of 200 football fields under one roof—are relatively empty of buyers. “We’re not selling anything because there are no customers,” one wholesaler reported. Renowned sushi restaurants adjacent to the market are suffering too, in part due to the lack of tourists.
The Tsukiji market’s general manager, Tsutomu Kosaka, told the New York Times, “It’s not like the brand is just damaged now—it’s over. At least for now, the brand is finished. Gone. It’s hopeless.”
(For the rest of my dispatch go to takepart.com)