Sushi to die for

Will bluefin tuna survive our insatiable appetite for status and taste?

Published July 27, 2009 10:23AM (EDT)

This environmental crisis has everything: world-renowned chefs and Hollywood celebrities in an intercontinental food fight over the fate of one of the world's great predators, the bluefin tuna.

Pound-for-pound, bluefin is the most valuable fish in the world, prized as a delicacy at the finest sushi bars. But after decades of overfishing, this magnificent fish, which can grow to weigh three-quarters of a ton, has been so severely depleted that it swims on the brink of oblivion. Yet its prized buttery flesh is still on the menu at Nobu, the celebrated high-end sushi chain, which is co-owned by Robert De Niro, and has 24 restaurants in 13 countries.

With demand for the rare tuna showing no signs of abating, the market for it has grown more feverish. At the highest level of bluefin mania, a single fish that weighed 444 pounds was sold at auction for $174,000 in 2001. Since the tuna jackpot can be so huge, it's no surprise that the weak regulations that exist to curb overfishing have been flouted by greedy constituents of the fishing industry, which put short-term profits over long-term sustainability.

But now conservationists, with help from Hollywood, are trying to transform bluefin from a status symbol to an environmental mark of Cain. In June, inspired by the muckraking documentary "The End of the Line," Sting, Elle Macpherson, Alicia Silverstone, Sienna Miller and Charlize Theron signed a letter, pleading with chef Nobu Matsuhisa to stop serving the fish.

Actress Greta Scacchi and Terry Gilliam of Monty Python fame stripped naked for an ad campaign to raise awareness about the bluefin's fate. In May, Nobu's New York outpost, more commonly the haunt of hedge-fund managers than raging activists, was the subject of dining-room activism by Greenpeace. Picketers carried make-believe menus, advertising such endangered-species delicacies as "Rack of Mountain Gorilla Seasoned with Powdered Rhino Horn ($32.00)."

"It's crazy for people to still be eating critically endangered species," says John Hocevar, a marine biologist with Greenpeace, who recently spent two and half weeks on a boat off the coast of Malta, Italy, and Tunisia patrolling for illegal bluefin fishing operations. "Eating bluefin is like eating cheetah or rhino."

Yet despite all the pressure, Nobu has refused to stop serving the fish. Under pressure from the campaigners, the restaurant has put an asterisk next to the delicacy on the menu at its London locations, advising diners that the fish is "environmentally threatened." But Nobu is not the only bluefin offender. While some high-profile celebrity chefs, such as Jamie Oliver and Gordon Ramsey, have pledged to boycott the fish, it is still served at most high-end sushi restaurants around the world.

Many of them, including Nobu, don't list a price on the menu, but instead say "m/p" or "market price," depending on the cut and quality of the fish that's available. In other words, if you have to ask, you can't afford it.

And many restaurants that carry bluefin don't exactly boast about it, but feature it for those in the know. In 2008, wait staff at Nobu denied serving the fish until DNA testing exposed their lie. If you're quoted an eye-popping price for "toro" on a sushi menu, that's likely bluefin, explains Casson Trenor, author of "Sustainable Sushi: A Guide to Saving the Oceans One Bite at a Time." If you see the words "chutoro," which means from the sides of the belly, or "otoro," which means the center of the belly, that's bluefin too.

Bluefin tuna require global cooperation to save them. The fish are truly creatures of the open oceans. Species include Pacific, Atlantic and Southern bluefins. "These are the fighter jets of the sea. They are really highly evolved to be able to swim far and fast," says Randy Kochevar, a marine biologist at Stanford University's Hopkins Marine Station, which runs the Tuna Research and Conservation Center with the Monterey Bay Aquarium. "They are really a global species. They cover a lot of ground."

In a mere 18 months, one tuna tagged by biologists off the coast of San Diego swam up to Monterey, Calif., back south to San Diego, across the ocean to Japan, back to San Diego, over to Japan again, before it was caught by a fisherman. Their range makes regulating them particularly difficult, as their lifestyle takes them into international waters.

The organization that's supposed to conserve tuna in the Atlantic is known as the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas. It's an intergovernmental body that recommends how many tuna can be sustainably caught. Theoretically, it should be able to put the brakes on the fishing frenzy in, say, the Mediterranean from May to July, when the fish congregate there to breed. But ICCAT's recommendations are so corrupted by fishing interests that ecologist Carl Safina, author of "Song for the Blue Ocean," and president of the Blue Ocean Institute, famously nicknamed the commission the International Conspiracy to Catch All the Tuna. "The tuna commission is a complete failure," he says.

The last time ICCAT met, in 2008, scientists suggested that the annual take be limited to between 8,000 and 15,000 metric tons. Ignoring the advice of its own scientists, ICCAT proceeded to set the limit at 22,000 tons. What's more, fishermen are not stopping at the ICCAT recommendations. As recently as 2007, when ICCAT set the quota at 30,000 tons, scientists estimated that closer to 60,000 tons were caught, thanks to unlicensed vessels pirating tuna, and licensed vessels flouting the rules to catch more than their share.

The tuna are taking a hit. "If you take a 1,200-pound fish out of the ocean, it's going to take a long time to replace that fish," explains Kochevar. "As you remove the large fish from the population, you're going to end up with a population that's smaller in numbers and size."

Enter the practice of bluefin ranching, where fish are caught and kept alive in ocean pens to be fattened for months until they reach sellable size. That means some of the younger fish are being taken out of circulation before they're old enough to breed and reproduce, precipitating the decline in the ocean.

There are two distinct populations of Atlantic bluefin. One breeds in the Gulf of Mexico and the other in the Mediterranean. On this side of the Atlantic, fishermen lament that they are catching only a fraction of the tuna they did seven years ago. But according to Safina, they have only themselves to blame. For years the fishing industry fought restrictions on bluefin quotas and now they are facing the consequences. "The opposition is so weakened by their own success," says Safina. "They got what they want, and now they're out of business."

The last few years have brought a flurry of bad news for the big fish of the sea. Some 90 percent of the world's great fish, including blue marlin and Antarctic cod, have almost disappeared since the 1950s, according to a paper published in Nature in 2003 by Ransom Myers and Boris Worm. By 2048, the world's supply of seafood will likely simply run out, Worm and other marine biologists warned in the pages of Science in 2006. As of 2008, 80 percent of the world's fish stocks were considered either vulnerable to collapse or already collapsed.

"This is a new era that we've moving into," says Gerry Leape, senior officer at the PEW Environmental Group. "We globally have assumed that there are always more fish in the sea, and it's only been in the last decade when the peer-reviewed science has come out to show that's not true."

With ICCAT still in the tank for fishing interests, according to Safina, wildlife advocates are turning to international bodies that govern endangered species to save the bluefin. In March 2010, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora [CITES], in which 175 countries participate, will hold its next meeting in Doha, Qatar, and momentum is building to restrict trade of bluefin. President Nicolas Sarkozy of France has announced that his country will support banning trade in endangered Atlantic bluefin. Britain and Monaco have indicated that they'll support the restrictions as well. The U.S. is considering doing so, but is still officially on the fence.

But CITES doesn't have a great history when it comes to conserving fish. "CITES has had trouble figuring out how to list commercially caught fish species," explains Leape. "Land animals, you can see and count them. When they get down to X number, of course there is no argument. You need to save the 200 snow leopards which are left." Those deep, ocean-dwelling fish are harder to count. "You can count zebras, you can count trees, you can estimate numbers of fish," says Hocevar.

In the 1990s, advocates tried to get CITES to list the west Atlantic bluefin tuna, but failed under pressure from countries that fish for it, trade in it and eat it. In 1992, Sweden proposed curtailing trade in the tuna at CITES, but the effort was squashed by Japan, where the majority of the world's bluefin tuna is sold, and consumed. "It should have happened in 1992. That's when it really could have saved the fish," says Safina, who drafted the proposal to list it then. "Now they're trying to lock the barn after the horse has been depleted."

Locked boat barn or not, say conservationists, environmental regulations today can't seem to keep pace with human appetites. The sushi craze that took off in the 1980s is still going strong, and bluefin tuna remain the pièce de résistance.

By Katharine Mieszkowski

Katharine Mieszkowski is a senior writer for Salon.

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