Every April of my Sicilian childhood, the bluefin tuna would return to the Mediterranean to spawn, and dozens of men from my village emerged from the winter torpor to prepare the traps. Fish and people on a linked mission — both securing a future in their own ways.
The tradition of the tonnara, the artisanal method of tuna trapping in underwater chambers, began in the Mediterranean with the Phoenicians; it was improved by the Arabs around the year 1000. In the 1870s, Sicilians started packing the bluefin tuna meat in locally produced olive oil instead of preserving with salt. At that time, over 70 tonnara were found across Sicily, many of which had a cannery inside and supported large communities of fishers and their families.
I remember the inscriptions that the rais, the lead fisherman, made on the wall of the cannery marking the number of tunas caught that year and the weight of the biggest fish. My father and I waited on the docks for fishers to return from the tonnara. My father would speak to the fishers and agree on a price for a whole tuna. That would be our seafood purchase for the year.
Year after year, the inscriptions on the walls of the cannery told the story of how the fish were getting smaller and the catch decreasing. Then, at some point around the mid-1970s, the inscriptions stopped. These are now just memories of a time not so long ago when fishers still sang the ancient songs and told stories while mending, preparing and setting the nets.
Million Dollar Fish
At the end of the 1980s, the Japanese market grew exponentially with the rise of the sushi economy. Japan imported about 1 million tons of bluefin in 1980. That number increased by seven-fold by 1990 and by 500 times by 1998. The average price paid to Atlantic fishers for bluefin exported to Japan rose between 1970 and 1990 by 10,000 percent.
A fish that once sustained local economies became part of an international trade worth around US$700 million per year. Today, most of the bluefin tuna caught in the Mediterranean Sea are put in cages for four to six months, where they are fed large amounts of wild-caught fish like sardines and anchovies. This is an efficient way to achieve the desired fat content of the famous “toro,” the rich belly of the tuna that influences the price on the Japanese market.
The crash happened fast. In 1996, the Atlantic bluefin tuna was listed as endangered; the population was down by 85%. In an eloquent and well-documented book, “Red Gold: The Managed Extinction of the Giant Bluefin Tuna,” author Jennifer Telesca tells the story of how the bluefin went from being the “king of all fish” to a commodity managed to favour profit over ocean sustainability.
Despite the efforts of scientists and NGOs, the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) has not done enough to enforce a sustainable level of fishing that could ensure the viability of the giant bluefin population. In addition, the fight against illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing rages on. WWF estimated that since the beginning of 2020 over 10 tons of illegal bluefin have been already seized, in Italy alone. Europol estimated in 2018 that the amount of illegally traded Atlantic bluefin tuna was twice as high as the legal amount.
Can of Cheetah?
As Jennifer Telesca points out in her piece in Yale E360, “The slaughter on a similar scale of charismatic land animals, such as lions or elephants, would evoke a global outcry, but a public disconnected from the marvel of sea creatures seems willing to accept the crash of giant tuna in the blink of an eye.”
Ernest Hemingway wrote of landing a bluefin with rod and reel, “If you land a big tuna after a six-hour fight and finally bring him up alongside the boat, green-blue and silver in the lazy ocean, you will be purified and will be able to enter unabashed into the presence of the very elder gods, and they will make you welcome.”
There’s a reason why Hemingway is Hemingway and I am a marine scientist, but I can attest I was amazed when I first met the bluefin. A wild animal with iridescent silver shape and large eyes, built like a bullet, moving at the speed of light.
Thanks to its anatomy, the bluefin can withstand Arctic temperatures and tropical waters as well as plunging down to reach depths of over 1,000 meters. Like a cheetah, the fastest animal on land, the bluefin can travel faster than most ocean creatures, reaching a speed of 80km per hour, swimming along ocean currents like a torpedo. And just like a cheetah, the bluefin is a top predator, which means it helps maintain a healthy ecosystem by regulating the population of its prey (and hence the prey of its prey).
Tuna appears to play an underestimated role in maintaining the balance of zooplankton and phytoplankton that are the foundation of ocean life. Plankton needs the nitrogen from the body processes of these super predators to build their own proteins and sugars through photosynthesis, from atmospheric carbon and sunlight. They bind some of this carbon in their own bodies and, when they die, they sink to the bottom of the ocean, a cycle that plays an important role in regulating the ocean’s temperature and the Earth’s climate.
In the Mediterranean, the sardines and anchovies that are fed to caged bluefin are, in turn, overfished. Depleting these prey stocks is literally starving the ocean megafauna that maintains and sustains a healthy ocean.
No time to waste
I am not an “old-timer.” I make this point not out of vanity, but to emphasize the speed with which we have decimated a species and robbed fishing communities of food and livelihoods. What has been taken in a biological blink of an eye will take time to rebuild. This is why the hasty, profit-driven move to certify Atlantic bluefin tuna is indefensible.
Our ocean is now calling. We must insist that the tuna we eat is sustainable and its journey along the supply chain did not endanger the ocean’s health. We should demand that only the absolute minimum amount of tuna be extracted from the ocean — to sustain livelihoods and to help put ocean health back on track.