Since a 2003 swim in a fish farm net in the Adriatic Sea with ninety-three, 500-600 pound blue fin tuna … I’ve been slightly obsessed with the lifespan and future of the big fish. Once a voracious fan of lightly seared tuna on the grill and anything tuna in my sushi, I’m off the blue fin for a half-year now. Why? Because my voraciousness has been matched around the world by millions – especially in seafood hungry Japan – putting the big tuna at great risk. The World Wildlife Fund predicts at our current rate of rapacious consumption, the world’s blue fin will be gone by 2012.
To that end, we took video cameras to Tokyo in May for a firsthand look at its Tsukiji market – the biggest seafood market in the world (65,000 employees, $5.5 billion a year, more than 400 species of fish sold six days a week – especially its twice-daily blue fin auction. The tuna, frozen, with their tails cut off to provide closer inspection of its oil and fat content (lots of both is best), go for tens of thousands of dollars each. We talked with fish mongers about the future of blue fin, and all the fish in the sea in general, and they were occasionally painfully honest (“I think we may see the last fish caught”) but more typically deluded (“The problem for tuna is not man, but the whales which eat them!”).
Japanese consume thirty percent of the world’s seafood and in that sashimi-loving nation blue fin are known as “black gold.” Now it appears that even in Japan tuna lovers are starting to realize that blue fin may soon be a thing of the past. A Times report tells the story of the northern fishing town of Oma, where ten, twenty years ago small fishing boats would routinely catch three or four wild tuna a day. Now the town’s fleet of thirty to forty boats is lucky to catch a half-dozen among them on a good day.
“The problem,” – report the fishermen – is that all the fish are being taken by big trawlers that come from elsewhere in Japan, or farther out to sea from Taiwan or Japan. Some of these ships even use helicopters to spot schools of tuna, which they scoop up in vast nets or catch en masse with long lines of baited hooks.” The bottom line is that fishing is no longer about luck and increasingly about high technology. Fish finders, GPS, satellite communication win out over local knowledge or fish sense. That the local Japanese fishermen are growing increasingly frustrated with their own government for not stepping in with limits on who can catch, how much and with what tools is ironic since the same kind of industrial fishing has essentially depleted previously rich blue fin grounds like the Mediterranean and the east coast of the United States.
In Oma, things are even worse than the fishermen’s catch being down. Scarcity has driven up the price of blue fin to such a degree that locals can no longer afford their favorite sashimi.
If you are among the one billion people on the planet who live within easy striking distance of the world’s ocean today would be a good day to dip a toe or more into it or spend a few minutes simply pondering that horizon line where blue meets blue because today — June 8th — is the first official, United Nations-declared World Oceans Day.
The concept, first proposed in 1992 by the Government of Canada at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, has been celebrated for the past half-dozen years by a loose coalition of aquariums, zoos, museums, conservation organizations and agencies, universities, schools, and businesses. Today the Ocean Project lists thousands of events around the globe celebrating and informing about the ocean.
My favorite recent step-in-the-right-direction regarding the health of the ocean are calls upon high-end restaurateurs around the world to give up on blue fin tuna. One of the most popular, thus most-endangered fish species, blue fin is the heart of many sushi menus. Which turned out last week to be an easy target for protest. In New York City, at the elegant Nobu, Greenpeacers slipped faux menus in with the real thing listing specials like “Rack of Mountain Gorilla Seasoned with Powdered Rhino Horn ($32).” The goal was to encourage the restaurant to drop the endangered blue fin from its menu.
Across the Atlantic, the owner of the luncheon chain Pret A Manger – after seeing a powerful new documentary “End of the Line” about how modern fishing is destroying the oceans’ ecosystem – has banned tuna from its sushi and sandwiches. “End of the Line,” based on the book of the same name by Charles Glover, has its international release today.
Despite my own concerns about lots of the big fish in the sea and our incredibly consumptive demand for them, I have been in the past a passionate tuna lover. Lightly seared, nearly raw, would be my favorite. But no more, I’m going cold turkey on tuna. Which, if it became a real trend, could make a big difference. Remember those nasty CFCs which were eating up the ozone over Antarctica? We quit using them and the ozone hole is closing proving that small steps can make a big difference.
Or you can follow the lead of one of Nobu’s patrons who, interviewed during the Greenpeace action by the Times, suggested all the tuna talk was making him hungry all over again. “I get another order. It was just great.” For now, Nobu is not going to remove the fish from its menu — opting instead just to let people know that what they’re about to order contains meat from an endangered species.
While we spend most of our time here talking about life at or near sea level, I have a bunch of good friends whose lives are dictated by getting higher and higher, in the mountains. Tragically that passion, even by the most elite climbers, too often ends up in headlines we’d rather not see. I spent the weekend monitoring the Internet for news of two friends – Jonny Copp, founder of Boulder’s Adventure Film Festival and my fellow Mountain Hardwear sponsored-athlete Micah Dash – who’d apparently disappeared on Mount Edgar in Sichuan, China. When they missed their flight out of Chengdu on June 5th, the searching began. Copp’s body was found yesterday at about 12,000 feet among avalanche debris (photographer Wade Johnson was nearby). For now, Dash remains missing.
For the past couple nights I’ve dreamed about being attacked by giant calamari; not the fried variety, but the long, gelatinous type, which invariably wrap me up in big squid rings, locking my arms to my side and push me into the sea. Which I’m sure has everything to do with spending the day in Hakodate, on the big island of Hokkaido, Japan’s squid capital.
The streets leading to the morning market are heavy with restaurants, each featuring an illustration of a squid on its awning, billboard or even in neon. At open-air shops tanks of still swimming squid are surrounded by trays of squid on ice, squid wrapped tight in plastic, dried squid, hammered squid, all cut, sliced and diced. Souvenir shops feature plastic squids, squid pens, even drinking cups made from … squid. You won’t be surprised that squid have been a staple here for thousands of years.
(The biggest squid ever caught? Twenty-four feet long. The largest invertebrate on the planet, they are thought to grow to as long as sixty feet but because they live at such great depths have never been studied in the wild.)
My question for these shopkeepers and restaurant owners, of course, is: Are they at risk of taking too many squid from the sea? Long thought beyond risk of being over fished – they don’t live long anyway, are a very prolific species and fluctuate naturally – the reason they seem to be safe will surprise you.
Normally at home along the coast from Mexico to Chile they are deep-sea creatures, living at depths of 3,000 to 5,000 feet they’re increasingly being found in the colder waters off California, Canada and Alaska. Jumbo squid, six to eight feet long, are booming in areas where they have not previously boomed. The reason for the boom takes us back to Japan, especially the big market at Tuskiji in Tokyo where we were a few days before. Guess what is the main predator of squid? Blue fin tuna. Which are now being badly over fished and sold by the thousands a day in Japan’s markets.
Lots of fingers point to Japan as the greatest threat to the depletion of fish around the world. The Japanese are the world’s biggest consumer of fish; Tuskiji is like an extraordinary mortuary for global sea life. Not only do the Japanese pose a problem for other countries’ fish stocks, but also threaten the world’s fish stocks as a whole. Each day, tens of thousands of tons of marine life, clawed from rocks and scooped from oceans by factory ships working 24 hours a day, are auctioned in the early hours. Japan’s taste for seafood only appears limited by price and availability. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimates Japan devours 30 percent of the world’s fresh fish, close to 170 pounds a year for each man, woman and child. Australians, by comparison, manage just 40 pounds.
Some conservationists and marine scientists are increasingly raising questions about how long Japan’s appetite can be accepted as an unquestioned cultural imperative. The constant plundering of the ocean is devastating fish stocks and destroying ecosystems. While we ponder that, there remains one good thing in the sea: There are plenty of squid … so get out the calamari recipes.
My first glimpse of Tsukiji fish market’s big, daily tuna auction is surreal: A thousand frozen blue fin tuna – weighing between one and two hundred pounds each – laid out in symmetrical rows on a concrete floor. That the first look is through a scratched plastic peephole, blurring the edges of the scene, makes it evermore otherworldly.
A pair of cavernous auction rooms sits at the far back of the market. Entry to each is through eight big yellow canvas roll-down doors, each bay representing a different company. Beginning around three a.m. the big fish are laid out; an hour later buyers or their representatives – from restaurants, supermarkets and vendors within the market – arrive to begin their daily inspection. This being Japan it is all very prompt: At 5:30 the first side of the room is auctioned, at 6 the second side. By 6:15, 6:20 at the latest, tuna are being dragged out and loaded onto carts to be sent all around Tsukiji, Tokyo and cities beyond, some destined for as far away as China.
Tuna are the biggest business in the world’s biggest fish market. Japanese love their blue fin and pay dearly. The biggest and best sell for $50,000, $80,000, occasionally more than $100,000. For a single fish. Last night we visited a high-end sushi joint in the chi-chi neighborhood of Ginza, which had split the cost of this year’s traditional “first” tuna with another restaurant, on January 8th – for a 129 kilos (261 pounds) tuna they paid more than $104,000. For the next several days’ lines stretched around the block for a taste.
The tuna come to Tsukiji from all over the world; Japanese processing boats scour the Indian Ocean, Mediterranean Sea and elsewhere buying up everything they can. They are not alone. One result of this rapacious demand, according to the World Wildlife Fund, is that blue fin tuna may be wiped out in the next few years.
This morning laid out in neat rows, still wearing sheen of frost and numbered with red food die there would appear to be no worry about running out of tuna. Each fish is split along its belly and a chunk has been cut out of its side to be used as a handhold. The tail has been cut off and a circular piece of meat dangles there by a thin piece of skin. A flap of meat has been cut flayed back near the tail, which is the main spot of inspection. Apparently the back and forth motion of the tail generates lots of oil in the fish and the more oil the better.
More than one hundred buyers mill about the frozen fish, in a kind of uniform: Blue coveralls or jacket with company name in white on the chest. Rubber boots. Ball cap with official badge indicating the buyer’s number pinned to its peak. The tools of the trade are simple: A flashlight, a wooden handled metal hook for lifting and probing, a cloth or paper towel hanging from the belt for wiping off fingers and hands post probing, a tiny notebook for jotting in and a cell phone for communicating with an absent boss. My favorite shopper is tall for a Japanese and wears a green windbreaker the same color as his dyed green hair, which is swept back Elvis-style. He’s got to be in his sixties, wears thick glasses and jokes with everyone around him as he inspects.
The inspection is equivalent to the kicking of a new car’s tires. With one finger the flap of meat near where the tail used to be is lifted and a flashlight shined on the exposed meat. Sometimes the flap is held back with the wooden handled hook, the density of the meat of the meat tested with hook or simply eyeballed. If they like what they see they will whack at the met with the metal hook, opening up the still mostly frozen tuna and then dig into it with their fingers, pulling out a red morsel which they roll in their fingers into a ball. Sometimes they take a big sniffing of the rare meat. I half expect them to pull a bottle of soy out of their pocket, juice it up and have a taste. I watch to see if they slip the meat into their pockets for later, but instead they most often drop it onto the floor, wipe their fingers on the towel hung from their belt and move onto the next fish. The biggest buyers bid on lots, buying a half-dozen at a time; some are here for an individual fish.
I’m curious about the hierarchy of the market and try to ask a couple Japanese men standing beside me. My assumption is that the auctioneers must be near the top of the heap. They say no, contending that everyone at the market – whether truck driver, fish cutter, icemaker or auctioneer – is equal. I ask who owns the market and they say they think it is three men. Which makes me wonder if it’s anything like the Fulton Fish Market in New York, which was long “administered” by the mob? One thing is clear: There are very few women and no Caucasians (“too tall,” they are told if they apply).
At exactly 5:30 the first of the two morning auctions begins with frantic hand bell ringing by four simultaneous auctioneers, each representing a different company, each standing on a blue step stool in front of one of the bay doors. Each rings with a different fervor and pace, beginning to shout out loud as the ringing increases. With a quick doff of his ball cap – to the fish, the spirits at large? – each is off, shouting and gesticulating, faces turning bright red, yelling what sounds to the non-Japanese ear something like, “TACO TACO TACO …. HIPPO HIPPO HIPPO … SAMPLE SAMPLE SAMPLE … TACO TACO TACO … SAPPY SAPPY SAPPY …” at the top of their lungs.
Each auctioneer has a personal style, bobbing and weaving and shouting in odd fashion, each channeling some kind of individual tuna god. My favorite is a tall man in a blue jumpsuit and brown ball cap, wearing thick glasses and a # 2 pencil stuck in a sleeve pocket. He notates madly in a little book even as his calling gets louder, more fervent, his face maroon, eyes glancing up towards the fluorescents as if he were channeling directly from the god of the sea, yet somehow registering the subtle finger lifting from buyers until calling out the Japanese equivalent of GOING … GOING … GONE. As he shouts a pair of men on either side note with pencil on paper the winning bids and then quickly mark each fish sold with a thick black magic marker.
The whole shebang lasts about ten minutes, sending several hundred fish towards cutting tables scattered around the sprawling market.
Twenty minutes later the second half of the warehouse is auctioned. I keep my eye on an individual buyer, representing a vendor inside the market. I watched him study a particular fish – at one point turning his back to it and grabbing it between his legs, I’m guessing to judge its weight? As soon as his bid was accepted he turned his ball cap around – the number on the metal plate pinned to its peak is his i.d. – he pulled out his hook, grabbed his fish and began dragging it towards the door. Using the handhold cut in its side he hoisted it onto a waiting, man-pulled cart and trailed it off into the maelstrom, on its way by days end to someone’s table.
Mohammed Jarrad and his four-man crew left the dock in their slow-chugging dhoni at five this morning. When I meet them unloading the day’s catch just as they sun disappears it means they’ve been at it for fourteen hours, a typical day for a Maldivian fishermen. The haul? About 150 kilos (330 pounds). Not bad, he says, about average. “Though sometimes we have days when we catch 500 kilos … but those are fewer and fewer.”
Photo: Fiona Stewart
As he and his team hand the fish up onto the dock from the back of the flat-decked boat they fill plastic crate after plastic crate with dorado, blue and yellow fin tuna, skipjack and one sizable barracuda. By law, every fish caught in Maldivian waters has to be caught by “pole and line.” No net fishing, no bottom trawling no seining. Which is a good thing for the health of the fishing grounds, which extend 200 miles off the edges of the Maldives 26 atolls. Yet there are still problems.
Sharks, which used to be prolific here, are largely gone due to over fishing (thanks, as in so many parts of the world, to China’s demand for shark fins). Sea cucumber numbers are quickly declining and the government stopped issuing export licenses for fishing for giant clams to prevent serious exhaustion and possible extinction. Tuna and the other popular edibles, while still abundant, have all diminished for a simple reason: Demand. The permanent population of the Maldives has boomed in the past decade, to nearly 400,000. Add to that the 600,000 tourists now coming every year and the pressure mounts.
“Unfortunately we see the pressure on the fish,” says marine biologist Anke Hofmeister, citing the lobster haul as example. “Sometimes the fishermen will bring in female lobsters with the eggs scraped off, hoping we won’t notice (taking female lobsters is illegal), and often they are smaller than the law permits. But the demand is high from the resorts, so too often some buyers are looking the other way.”
As a percentage of the country’s business, fishing has slipped as tourism has boomed. In the 1970s fishing provided thirty percent of the nation’s revenues; in the 1990s, fifteen percent, in 2000, just six percent. By comparison, tourism now provides over forty percent of the country’s GDP.
Watching these tuna fisherman do their job is one of the wildest fishing scenes I’ve ever seen. A commercial fishing boat here is rudimentary in comparison to much of the rest of the world. Twenty to twenty five feet long, wooden, with a long, flat deck interrupted only by a small, three-sided cabin, which is used mostly for shade during the long, hot days at sea. A long rudder, usually manipulated by the captain’s foot, does the steering.
Eight to ten fishermen (always men, never women) bait long poles and cast off the deck simultaneously, and have been known to reel in more than one thousand tuna in an hour. Boats with automated poles can be even more “productive.”
Half the catch in the Maldives is for local use, the other half is frozen or canned and exported to
Southeast Asia, a $50 million a year enterprise. Mohammed J. and his four-person crew go out six days a week, motoring at least two hours from home each morning. His take this day for the 150 kilos will be about $375, split among five men. On average, each man will earn around $350 a week.
As the setting sun turns the sky purple and orange I ask how often they see green turtles – illegal to catch, but once a mainstay of the local diet here – and he says “every day.”
“It is hard to watch them just swim by,” he says of the turtles, which can weight up to four hundred pounds. “But we do.”
I trust that he’s telling me the truth, though he looks away as he is answering. It’s hard in these communities for them to change their habits; certainly his father and grandfather and great-grandfather fed their families off green turtles often.