The Working Waterfront

Bluefin tuna blues: To eat or not to eat?

Questions linger on sustainability of fishery

Nancy Harmon Jenkins
Posted 2021-11-04
Last Modified 2021-11-04

My favorite sushi restaurant is in Rockland—Suzuki Sushi, where Keiko Suzuki Steinberger presides over a delectable panorama of sushi, sashimi, nigiri, and other mostly seafood delights of Japanese cuisine. I love Chef Keiko’s insistence on fish that’s local, fresh, and sustainably harvested, but there’s one variety, in great demand, that I decline whenever I see it on her menu: Atlantic bluefin tuna.

Why? Because from all I’ve read, studied, and experienced over many years, Atlantic bluefin are in danger, over-fished to a perilous degree and at serious risk of disappearing from our seas. Like wild Atlantic salmon, which we no longer harvest, market, or otherwise consume, the time may have come for a similar ban on this magnificent fish.

But am I right? Is this really true?

Questions linger on sustainability of fishery.

I’ve spent a lot of time in the past few weeks looking at what we know and don’t know about bluefin, talking with experts like Shana Miller, Walt Gulet, Jennifer Telesca, and others, reading dense documents from international acronymic organizations like WWF and IUCN. The end result, for me at least? I still don’t feel comfortable dining on what I firmly believe is an endangered fish.

But it’s a complex question. Part of the complexity comes from the fact that these incredible warm-blooded fish are virtual torpedoes of the ocean world, one of the largest fish in existence and probably the fastest (they have been tagged crossing the Atlantic in just 40 days), as well as highly migratory and thus hard to trace.

Another piece of complexity, however, is not so well known: There are actually two genetically distinct populations of Atlantic bluefin.

“Draw a line down the globe from Greenland south,” explains Shana Miller. As senior officer for international fisheries conservation at the Ocean Foundation, Miller is a respected authority who has spent much of the last two decades monitoring tuna. Eastern Atlantic bluefin, she said, breed almost exclusively in the Mediterranean, where they are heavily fished, as they have been back to prehistoric times. Despite a troubling amount of IUU (illegal, unregulated, unreported) fishing, this population appears to be in fairly good health.

Western Atlantic bluefin are a different story. Smaller in numbers, their range extends from Canada to Brazil and they breed in the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico where pollution may be a factor in their troubled status. Western Atlantic bluefin is what’s fished, naturally, off the New England coast, what we’re offered in our seafood shops, restaurants, and sushi parlors. And this is where the problem lies.

Not everyone agrees. Impassioned advocates, including commercial and sport fishers, will tell you there are more fish “out there” than a person could possibly count, that the stock of bluefin in the Gulf of Maine is healthier than it has been for decades.

Walter Gulet, a professor in the University of Maine’s School of Marine Sciences with a laboratory at the Gulf of Maine Research Center in Portland, says stringent regulations have created a vigorous stock of Western Atlantic bluefin. But should I, as a conscientious consumer, be eating the fish?

“Absolutely! But If you’d asked me that in 2005, ‘06, ‘07, I might have answered very differently,” he said.
He credits improved stocks in the western North Atlantic to harvest regulations imposed by U.S. authorities, including size (72 inches) and gear (only hook-and-line or harpoon allowed) plus a relatively low total allowable catch and a maximum catch of one fish per boat trip. The result is a population healthy enough to sustain a robust commercial fishery.

On the other hand, other scientists will tell you these bluefin are a small fraction of what they once were—based on the 2020 stock assessment, probably just 14 percent of what there was in the 1950s, according to Miller. And the fish are smaller in size, always an indication of overfishing.

This is a population of much greater concern than the relatively healthy Eastern Atlantic stock. That concern is reflected in a recent controversial and very confusing decision by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), probably the top worldwide NGO for species conservation. In September, the IUCN moved Atlantic bluefin as a whole from endangered to “least concern.”

But here’s the catch: According to IUCN’s own statement, although the population of Atlantic bluefin in the Mediterranean has risen by 22 percent in the past 40 years, numbers in the Gulf of Mexico have declined by more than half in the same period, confirming Miller’s statement about the decline of Western Atlantic stocks from what they were in the middle of the 20th century. And that is precisely the population that our fishers harvest, however sustainably, in the Gulf of Maine.

The International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas sets quotas and assigns them to member nations. It sets separate quotas for Eastern and Western Atlantic bluefin. For 2021, the commission approved a take of 36,000 metric tons for bluefin from the Eastern Atlantic and Mediterranean, a record high. For the Western Atlantic, the take is just 2,350 metric tons, a continuation of the 2020 quota and a reflection of the smaller over-all population.

According to Pew Charitable Trusts, which keeps an eye on fish stocks around the world, that take allowance is counter to ICCAT’s assessments and will lead to overfishing of what is already a severely depleted stock. Calling ICCAT “a dismal failure,” Pew has proposed adding Atlantic bluefin to the CITES convention, which prohibits international trade in protected species.

Jennifer Telesca, anthropology professor at Pratt Institute who has studied tuna from the perspective of the fishermen, the conservationists, the marketers, even that of the fish, goes even further. Her recent book, Red Gold, is subtitled “The Managed Extinction of the Giant Bluefin Tuna.” And that, she believes, is ICCAT’s underlying goal.

“And so,” Telesca wrote in a recent edition of Yale Environment 360, “the destruction of one of the planet’s most remarkable beings continues, abetted by the very institution that for a half-century has been charged with managing—and protecting—the bluefin.”

And that’s why I continue to decline the offer.

Nancy Harmon Jenkins is a food writer with an interest in where food comes from and how it gets transformed into what want to eat. Originally from Camden, where she now lives, she also lived for many years in and around the Mediterranean.