This is a transcript of the Gastropod episode, All Aboard the Tuna Rollercoaster! Join the King of Fish for a Wild Ride that Involves Ernest Hemingway and (of course) Jane Fonda, first released on September 5, 2023. It is provided as a courtesy and may contain errors.
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JIM AXELROD: It is the most prized tuna species on the market, highly sought by master sushi chefs in Japan and the world over. In January, a single bluefin tuna sold for just under $400,000.
MAN: Look at the cuts of premium bluefin toro. The marbling, the fat. It might be the greatest thing I’ve ever eaten in my life.
MIKE SUTTON: The bluefin tuna is the poster child for overfishing globally. Consumers can help by avoiding bluefin tuna. Don’t buy it if you see it on the menu. Don’t buy it in the ports. It’s overfished. We need to give that species a break so it can recover.
NICOLA TWILLEY: To eat bluefin or not to eat bluefin. That is the question, or at least one of the questions this episode.
CYNTHIA GRABER: Hamlet was definitely wrestling with this one back in the day. It’s a question that involves fish the size of a car that can turn into a speeding bullet and zip across the ocean.
TWILLEY: Fish that are worth their weight in gold—even though until really recently, you used to have to pay to dispose of them. This episode, we’re telling the curious tale of the bluefin tuna, king of all tunas—really king of all fish.
GRABER: It’s a tale whose characters include Ernest Hemingway, sushi masters, and international crime lords. But really, this is a story about how we took one of the most amazing and the most expensive fish and very nearly wiped it off the face of the planet.
TWILLEY: Shakespeare, eat your heart out. But don’t eat bluefin? Or maybe it’s okay? We’ll find out. And we of course are Gastropod, the podcast that looks at food through the lens of science and history. I’m Nicola Twilley.
GRABER: And I’m Cynthia Graber. This episode was supported in part by the Alfred P Sloan Foundation for the public understanding of science, technology, and economics. Gastropod is part of the Vox Media Podcast Network, in partnership with Eater.
GRANTLEY GALLAND: It starts out smaller than a human eyelash and grows up to the size of an adult polar bear. So we’re talking about 1500 to 2000 pounds, more than 12 feet long. It’s the size of a small car.
TWILLEY: Grantley Galland is a project director at the Pew Charitable Trusts, where he works on marine conservation and fisheries management. And he helped introduce us to the wide world of tuna fish, which are actually a kind of mackerel. Just really, very, extremely large mackerel.
GRABER: You may think, tuna, okay, I know what tuna is, but there are a lot of different tuna out there—there are 15 different species. You may have heard of a few of them, skipjack and albacore and maybe yellowtail on a sushi menu. Three tuna species are commonly found in cans of tuna. But these days the bluefin is never canned.
TWILLEY: Because it is the most expensive fish in the world, by a long, long way. You don’t put that in a can, you lay those jewel-toned strips of wildly expensive fish flesh on a plate, raw, and savor it. Just for itself.
GRABER: It’s absolutely delicious, it’s fatty and umami and it melts on your tongue and has an incredible flavor and a taste of the ocean, it’s a truly incredible bite of food. Mark Wiens is a popular food youtuber who’s based in Thailand, and he recorded himself being fed bluefin sushi.
MARK WIENS: The next course is akami, which is the lean tuna, that pure red, and it’s just shining with the, with the sauce that he’s brushed over it.
WIENS: Oh, I don’t even want to chew. Well, I don’t need to chew. Ridiculous. And as soon as you finish one, one best bite of your entire life, another best bite of your entire life comes.
TWILLEY: And just a reminder again, for that top grade sashimi bluefin, there is no other fish that even comes close to costing as much. Forget your Copper River king salmon and your lobster, they are not even in the same league.
GRABER: Or leagues. As it turns out there are actually three different species of bluefin, there’s one in the Pacific and one called the southern bluefin that roams around the southern hemisphere, but we’re going to be talking mostly about Atlantic bluefin today. These bluefin star in a new book by Karen Pinchin called Kings of Their Own Ocean. The Atlantic bluefin are the biggest of all the huge bluefin.
KAREN PINCHIN: It’s not unusual throughout the sixties and seventies to actually have these fish—as they’re landed on docks through the Northeast—to actually have them break scales. They would be too heavy for a lot of the scales that a lot of these ports would have to weigh fish.
TWILLEY: Size matters as we all know, but that’s not the only special feature of these fabulous fish. They are part of an extremely elite group of fish that are warm-bodied. No matter how cold the ocean, the bluefin is hot. Well, not hot exactly, but its muscles are definitely warm.
PINCHIN: And it does this by essentially using a—it’s like a countercurrent heat exchange. Called the rete mirabele. And that’s, it’s essentially a network of veins that, that prevents heat loss through its gills. And that’s a very special element to the bluefin’s physiology.
GRABER: Most cold blooded creatures, their blood is the same temperature as their surroundings, and when it gets cold they get sluggish. But the rete mirabile is an unusual system that keeps the body of the bluefin at about the same temperature as a human body, even in deep cold water. And because the bluefin stays so warm, the enzymes and chemicals in its stomach can digest food more quickly and rapidly convert that into energy to help it move faster.
TWILLEY: It’s a super cool, or I guess I should say super warm, and super rare ability. And it’s even more amazing if you think about how a tuna breathes.
PINCHIN: The interesting thing about bluefin is that they need to swim to breathe. They can’t stop the way that some fish can. In order to breathe, they, they keep moving, and the oxygenated water passes over their gills into their mouth. So very often you see them swimming with their mouths agape.
TWILLEY: What that means is that bluefin tuna are constantly getting the oxygen they need to breathe from this super cold water all around them. In any normal fish, that would mean that their blood would be cold too. But in a bluefin, this internal net-like rete mirabile system circulates heat from the tuna’s muscles around that newly oxygenated, newly-chilled blood, so it gets warmed back up before it can slow the tuna down. It’s genius.
GRABER: It’s amazing to think about it, but they can keep their bodies at, again, at human body temperature, and all the while they’re swimming around in waters that are nearly freezing. And they stay there, that’s where they hang out.
TWILLEY: They actually tend to cluster in the coldest areas because that’s where they have the biggest hunting advantage. All the other fish without a rete mirabile are cold and slow and stupid, while our warm bodied tuna are sharp and ready to pounce.
GRABER: All tuna have this body-warming ability to some degree—they’re among the 0.1 percent of all fish that can do this—but of all the tuna, the bluefin have perfected the system. It’s why they can move so fast and digest so quickly. A bluefin tuna is an eating and swimming machine.
PINCHIN: That allows it to go deep into the North Atlantic and it still has the ability to channel that heat to its eyes, to its brain, to its muscles. And that’s what gives it the power to really reach the speeds that it can.
TWILLEY: It’s also super aerodynamic, or actually hydrodynamic—it has indents where it pulls its fins in to reduce drag and turn into this torpedo shape. And it has its own custom swimming technique.
PINCHIN: And it’s instead of, you know, wiggling its body the way like a floppy bass would, or a trout, it essentially keeps its head straight. And it’s the tail that moves back and forth. And it’s, it’s almost hard to describe how fast it is. In some cases, I’ve seen some where the tail is moving so fast, it’s like your eye can’t keep up with the speed.
GRABER: It’s so strong and so big and so fast that it can swim five consecutive marathons in a day, every day, for more than a month, and it literally can speed across the Atlantic and back.
TWILLEY: It’s an elite athlete and it’s also very pretty. I always thought of tuna as big and grey and not that exciting looking, but Karen says the bluefin can be spectacular.
PINCHIN: It’s almost like an octopus. Where it has these chromatophores, these cells, right underneath its skin, kind of in its skin. And they can actually flash and change color. And you’ll get these, you know, purples, yellows, turquoises, all these, kind of otherworldly colors. Sometimes it can even take different patterns the way an octopus can. So in one case, there’s a photo of the fisherman I write about and he’s holding a fish and it looks like it’s almost zebra striped.
GRABER: It’s not only spectacular to look at, as we mentioned it’s also spectacularly expensive.
TWILLEY: The most expensive tuna ever sold went for $3 million in 2013. $3 million for a single fish.
GRABER: Bluefin tuna hasn’t always been so incredibly expensive, these astronomical prices are a recent phenomenon. But the fish has been critically important to humans for thousands and thousands of years.
PINCHIN: It’s been caught for 3000 years in the Mediterranean. There is some archeological evidence that it’s been caught much, much deeper into time, kind of before recorded history, by Neanderthals near the Straits of Gibraltar.
TWILLEY: Karen says the Mediterranean bluefin fishery is probably the oldest organized fishery anywhere in the world. But catching a fish the size of a polar bear or a small car—that wouldn’t have been easy for early humans.
GRABER: Back about ten thousand years ago, before humans had developed advanced fishing techniques, they were helped by some whales. Once a year, the bluefin would swim through the narrow mouth of the Mediterranean to spawn, and suddenly they turned from predators to prey, because they were being chased by hungry orcas.
TWILLEY: Archaeologists suggest that this ended up as kind of a cross species collaboration—the orcas cornered the tuna and drove them toward the beach, which is where the early humans were standing equipped with spears to finish the job. And both species ended up with lots of fish.
GRABER: As time went on, people developed an orca-free fishery around a system of big nets shaped like mazes that the bluefin would swim into. Inside these nets, they get kind of discombobulated, they can’t turn around and escape, and so they get trapped.
PINCHIN: And these nets, these—set up along the coast of the Mediterranean, would catch thousands and thousands of fish. Even hundreds of years ago, this was a very, very productive fishery. These net systems have different names. They’re called Matanza in Italy. In Spain, they’re called the almadraba. They’re called tiro. They’re essentially nets that are fixed to the bottom of the ocean, that channel the fish into chambers.
TWILLEY: Fishing for bluefin was a huge industry in the ancient Mediterranean. First of all, there were a lot of tuna—Pliny the Elder describes how there were so many tuna that they got in the way of Alexander the Great’s fleet of ships, like a tuna traffic jam. And then there were so many of these net mazes catching so many tuna that it made people huge fortunes. According to ancient Greeks, the wealth of the city of Byzantium came from bluefin tuna.
GRABER: There was so much tuna wealth floating around, that an engraving of a tuna was literally on some of the earliest coins in the region. One coin depicted a Greek temple that was held up by columns of bluefin. Another one has an image of a tuna underneath a lion attacking a bull. Bluefins decorated goblets, and cups, and vases, they were everywhere.
TWILLEY: Humans were so effective at catching bluefin tuna with these maze nets that this may well be the first example of something that is far more common today: overfishing. For a while, people just worried about it and didn’t do much, but there was a Sicilian law prohibiting taking super small tuna as early as the late 1700s—that’s one of the earliest conservation restrictions on catching fish in history.
GALLAND: In fact, some scientists today, if you ask scientists in Italy, in Cyprus and elsewhere, would tell you that bluefin was actually overfished hundreds of years ago.
GRABER: Of course, people didn’t enjoy a bluefin dinner just in the Mediterranean. Karen says that people around the world ate the giant fish, whenever and however they could catch it. It’s just that it’s so huge that it’s hard to catch, and most places didn’t have the perfect bottleneck that the Mediterranean had. But if you could somehow catch this beautiful massive delicious fish, you’d have eaten it.
TWILLEY: Later, as humans developed bigger boats and better nets in the 1700s and 1800s, it became easier to catch other, smaller fish like cod and herring. Big muscular tuna would often break those nets as they thrashed around—and so, outside the Mediterranean, fishermen started to hate them, they thought they were a pain.
GRABER: Over the centuries, tastes changed, too. People got more into whiter fish like cod, and even paler-fleshed species of tuna like albacore. Bluefin flesh is deep ruby red. In North America, people really weren’t into it.
PINCHIN: It was this darker, fleshed meat that when cooked, sometimes—like for instance, when you cook, like, a really fatty fish, like a mackerel on too high heat, sometimes the fat can kind of taste off. And so part of it was that people in North America didn’t know how to cook this fish. It was considered only good for cats and immigrants.
TWILLEY: By the early 1900s there was really only one group of people from outside the Mediterranean who appreciated the bluefin and that select group included Ernest Hemingway.
PINCHIN: You had this craze for giant fish. You know, think of Ernest Hemingway. He famously described that to catch one of these giant bluefin tuna would be to, you know, “enter into communion with the very elder gods.” There was this equating of single man’s, or woman’s, ability to catch this fish as a kind of courageous power. You know, man versus fish.
GRABER: This epic tale of man versus fish totally transformed a tiny corner of Nova Scotia that juts out into the Atlantic Ocean, it’s close to where two ocean currents meet and there’s a huge upwelling of nutrients that feeds throngs of fish. The nearest town is appropriately called Wedgeport.
NARRATOR: It is July. Bluefin tuna again are striking in the waters off Nova Scotia. In Soldier’s Rip, a strong tidal stream about one mile wide, great schools of tuna feed amongst the rocky Tuske Islands. Tuna throng here, so hungry for food they destroy nets and food fish. To rid the waters of them, the Wedgeport fishermen rigged up boats for harpooning.
TWILLEY: This is from a documentary called Battling Bluefins made by a pioneering female director in the 1940s. And, as you will have gathered, at first, the Wedgeportians like almost every other North American, thought the bluefin were a giant pain in the butt.
GRABER: But then Michael Lerner showed up on the scene. He was desperate to battle and reel in a bluefin.
TWILLEY: Michael was the wealthy son of a big department store family, Lerners. And his passion, like so many wealthy white men, was hunting things. Specifically really big fish.
GRABER: In 1935, Michael Lerner was traveling around Nova Scotia with a guide, and he’d just about given up on bluefin. He stopped for gas, and behind the counter he saw a newspaper clipping of a guy who’d caught a thousand-pound fish. Where did that happen, he asked? The guy said it was in Wedgeport.
PINCHIN: They were kind of just put-putting along the coast, trying to catch one of these big fish. Eventually convinced a fisherman to lend them a dory, which is like a small boat. They bolted a chair onto that dory, and they strapped Michael into the—into the chair. And they essentially went off the western coast . In a piece of ocean called Soldiers Rip.
TWILLEY: The guides had to strap Michael down because catching a bluefin tuna with a rod and reel is a bit of a battle. The fish is super muscular and it won’t stop fighting and remember, again, it can be the size of a small car.
NARRATOR: It was in 1935 that Mike Lerner, ever on the hunt for new tuna fishing grounds, angled here with bait. The fish grabbed hungrily, and he had strike after strike.
GRABER: This was the first time anyone had managed to land a bluefin with rod and reel.
NARRATOR: Almost overnight, Wedgeport became news.
PINCHIN: And that sparked this frenzy for catching bluefin and international teams visited rural, extremely rural Canada, still extremely rural, uh, from all over the world. People would spend their life savings to travel here to catch for the opportunity to catch these fish. And you had an international tuna tournament.
NARRATOR: These giant bluefins bring sport fishermen from all over the world to Nova Scotia. And for them, the day begins while others sleep. In these waters, all world records but two have been made. Record tunas have been caught off Yarmouth, Shelburn, Jordans Falls, Liverpool, Lunenburg, and many other seaport towns and villages. But Soldier’s Rip, off Wedgeport, is the most famous hotspot in the world. For tuna in both size and quantity.
TWILLEY: What jolly times these must have been!
GRABER: Karen said the Wedgeport scene was a huge party, people were there from all over the world, there was lots of drinking and feasting—and everyone was talking about all the tuna they caught but they weren’t eating it.
PINCHIN: Very often it would be brought in, hung up on a winch, or somewhere on the dock, and then people would pose with it. People would kinda look at it, kids would poke it, you know. And then eventually they would bring it down once it started to smell. And they would either bury it as fertilizer for the crops. But more often they would just put it directly back on the boat. The boat would motor pass the breakwater and they would just dump it.
TWILLEY: Because, like Karen said, bluefin tuna was seen as low-class fish only good for immigrants and cats. But catching it—that was fit for a president.
PINCHIN: FDR visited, Babe Ruth visited, and Amelia Earhart was known to have visited the coast at the time. So it was just this, you know, hot pot of money and ego—but it only lasted as long as the tuna lasted. And when the tuna stopped showing up in the sixties and the early seventies, the fishermen disappeared as well.
GRABER: The locals blamed the disappearance on all sorts of things, some people blamed a priest who said the fish wouldn’t come if people didn’t go to church. But others more accurately blamed Japanese fishing boats, which were fishing farther offshore.
TWILLEY: While the Wedgeportians had been throwing the bluefin they caught away, the Japanese had suddenly started hoovering the fish up like there was no tomorrow. So what had changed? That story, coming up after the break.
GRABER: To solve the mystery of Wedgeport’s disappearing fish, we have to step back in time. About a hundred years ago, when bluefin sport fishing was really catching on in Canada, it wasn’t just in North America where bluefin was seen as a trash fish, it was in Japan, too. Bluefin was too dark, it was smelly, it was considered kind of gross. In fact, all the tuna at the time in Japan was officially considered quote, “inferior fish.” They preferred delicate white fish, things like flounder and sea bream. But then that changed.
PINCHIN: Essentially the Japanese appetite for tuna, for bluefin tuna specifically. It really started to emerge after the second World War. There was a widespread… kind of, interest in red meat it that came from the interest in, in beef that the Americans were consuming when they came over during the Second World War. And all of a sudden, this fatty, red, bluefin tuna, it started to catch on in sushi bars.
TWILLEY: These were Pacific bluefin, so a different bluefin species. There weren’t that many of them and they were increasingly valuable. And so Japanese fishermen raced to catch them and make money from this new bluefin craze.
GRABER: By the 1970s the Japanese had caught nearly all the Pacific bluefin, so they started looking elsewhere for other kinds of bluefin.
PINCHIN: Eventually they crossed the Atlantic. You know, and they, they came all the way to the eastern coast of North America.
GRABER: But there was a problem. They had huge ships, as we mentioned these ships had been seen off the coast of Wedgeport in Nova Scotia. They even had refrigeration on board their ships. They were catching a lot of fish, yes, but between how they caught the fish and how they refrigerated it, the quality of the tuna flesh that made it back on the boat to Japan wasn’t good enough to command the very highest prices. It wasn’t necessarily sashimi grade.
TWILLEY: And this is where we get a fun refrigeration story! It’s actually one I reported for my forthcoming book too. It involves Japan Airlines, which was dealing with a cargo conundrum at the time: too many exports, not enough stuff to bring back.
PINCHIN: In New York, you’d have these giant cargo planes that had just unloaded all their electronics, right? VCRs, cameras. And they needed a high value, perishable product that would warrant the gas, the time, the, you know, bringing that plane all the way back to Tokyo. And bluefin tuna was essentially the solution.
TWILLEY: The guy in charge of solving this challenge looked at a few different options before arriving at bluefin as the best solution. But then there was yet another problem. How to get it all the way from rural New England or Canada to the central Tsukiji market in Tokyo in good-enough condition to become sushi. There was no such thing as refrigerated air cargo containers back then. The Japan Airlines team tried all kinds of things: dipping the fish in various coatings, gassing them with carbon monoxide. But nothing worked.
PINCHIN: That’s eventually where you get this romp of Japan Airlines Limited, recruiting some rural Prince Edward Island coffin makers to essentially build wooden coffins, into which their employees could pack ice and pack whole giant fish. And they would hammer them shut and ship them directly to New York.
GRABER: This coffin-freezer-contraption worked! It took a few goes to get it just right, but in August 1972, five massive bluefin made it to the market in Tokyo in fantastic condition, four days after they’d been caught in rural Canada. And those fish sold for a lot of money.
PINCHIN: And so, that day, in August 1972, is actually still referred to as “the day of the flying fish.” And that was the moment when, if this was a graph, right, this is where it went, whoop. And it just kind of hockey sticks up. That’s when the scuttlebutt on the docks throughout New England was, hey, did you hear how much buddy got for his fish?
TWILLEY: Japanese buyers started showing up on the docks in New England, flashing cash.
PINCHIN: You can imagine the culture clash in these communities where these fish were just, you know, hung up and then thrown away, of being like, you’ll pay me how much for this fish?
GRABER: This completely transformed the industry in the US and in Canada. Fishermen were raking it in, the sushi market in Japan was devouring all the bluefin that could be caught. Good times all around.
TWILLEY: Unless, by some unlucky chance, you were a bluefin tuna. In which case, it was the apocalypse. And it was about to get even worse, because sushi was about to become popular worldwide.
GRABER: The American sushi trend began in Los Angeles in the 1970s, and then it moved to New York.
PINCHIN: It’s seen as being this kind of delicacy for the adventurous eater. You know, it’s kind of, in some ways it’s fetishized. You know, if you’re a daring eater, try raw fish.There was a Craig Claiborne article where he, it’s called Wake Up Little Su-ushi? Wake Up. You know: [SINGING] wake up, little sushi, wake up. Anyways, I’m sorry for singing on your podcast
TWILLEY: No apologies necessary. All super cute but also very bad news for bluefin tuna. Pretty soon all this fishing and sushi eating started to make a dent in bluefin numbers. Like we said, the Wedgeport Tuna fishing lollapalooza was canceled already by the mid 1970s because there weren’t enough fish showing up anymore.
PINCHIN: You essentially had too much demand on too few animal bodies. You really had the kind of hollowing out of populations worldwide.
GRABER: We’ve been talking a lot about sport fishermen, but the boats that were hollowing out the tuna population were huge fishing vessels. They had technology invented and used during World War II. They had GPS, they had sonar. They had pilots flying around to find schools of tuna. It was industrial fishing, and it started pretty soon after the war ended.
TWILLEY: From the 1950s, even before the Japan Airlines sashimi solution, all this industrial technology was allowing Japanese fishing boats to harvest tuna in vast quantities from waters that New England and Newfoundland fishermen had traditionally regarded as their backyard.
GRABER: So the American and Canadian fishermen complained to their politicians that foreign countries were stealing all our tuna. And then U.S. politicians began to argue in favor of regulation of the tuna fisheries at international conferences. And because the US was the big um shall I say tuna in town, it got its way. A group of countries created the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas in the late 1960s. It’s called ICCAT for short.
GALLAND: The International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas is a, a body, a coalition of governments, sort of a UN-style collection of, of governments that manage all tuna fisheries around the Atlantic. There are 52 members of that coalition, which I think sort of describes how difficult management process can be when you need 52 governments to agree to something.
PINCHIN: They got around a table, they set their headquarters in Madrid and said, you know, we need to do something about this fish. It’s worth noting that that organization was formed, partially because quite a few governments were saying, this fish is collapsing. And so the commercial industry got together to essentially start regulating itself, before government did anything really meaningful in terms of stopping the industry entirely. So it was one of these kind of, wolf in secretarial glasses kind of overlooking the sheep herd. So there were some, some big criticisms of this organization throughout the seventies and eighties.
TWILLEY: And for good reason. Even though scientists kept warning that the species was at risk of collapse, ICCAT didn’t start introducing limits on catches until the mid-1970s, and those limits were entirely voluntary.
GRABER: The US tried another tack to keep Japanese fishing boats out of their tuna stocks: they passed a bill in the 1970s that would give them control over waters up to 200 miles off their coastline.
TWILLEY: But for bluefin tuna as we already know 200 miles is nothing! They roam all over the ocean. And so setting a limit around one country’s shores did nothing.
PINCHIN: Yeah. So that amazing physiology we talked about that allows the tuna to travel such insane distances? It also worked against it on kind of an international regulation level. Because a lot of the countries that had historically caught this fish, you know, the stocks were plummeting, but they said, well, it’s a highly migratory fish. It’s not just our problem. So it’s funny, even as that 200 mile limit was being negotiated, there were very early signs that the highly migratory fish were always the Achilles heel.
TWILLEY: There just didn’t seem to be a good way to manage such a global fish.
GALLAND: Governments are not great about accepting responsibility for a problem like this. When there are several other governments and several other flags flying on fishing vessels around the North Atlantic, it’s very easy to point to what the other guy is not doing.
TWILLEY: The Americans were pointing the finger at the Japanese, and they were pointing the finger at European countries, who also weren’t willing to enforce any quotas or reductions in catches. And US fishermen were still complaining to their senators.
GRABER: Since the 200 mile limit wasn’t working, and neither were the ICCAT voluntary quotas, the US tried another angle—they pointed out that there are a couple different bluefin populations in the North Atlantic, one spawns in the Mediterranean and one spawns in the Gulf of Mexico.
PINCHIN: And that, that meant that the Atlantic bluefin tuna was two separate populations. That one stayed on the west, one stayed on the east, and that, you know, maybe you had the occasional super enterprising fish, you know, crossing back and forth. But that really, they could be managed separately. And this was an idea that was codified in 1981. It was championed by the United States delegation to ICCAT. And it was essentially an arbitrary line drawn down the middle of the Atlantic Ocean because the United States wanted to be able to regulate its fish.
GRABER: Karen says this border line in the middle of the Atlantic was arbitrary and it is, because while there are these two spawning grounds, the fish swim far and all seem to pretty much mingle in the middle of the ocean to eat and frolic.
TWILLEY: But nonetheless, the line was a politically convenient tool to allow the US and Canada to put in place some tougher regulations at least on one side of the pond. Because the other members of ICCAT on the European side of the Atlantic were not willing to do that at all.
GRABER: And so, because of this line, the western side did finally get at least some moderately effective regulation. ICCAT shut down bluefin fisheries in the Gulf of Mexico entirely, that’s where the western population of Atlantic bluefin gathers to breed.
GALLAND: That closure stays in effect today and, you know, is an important tool, but it was not enough.
GRABER: Things were looking pretty bad for the bluefin. According to tuna author Douglas Whynott, internal ICCAT documents showed that North American bluefin stocks had dropped about 90 percent between 1970 and 1991. And it’s not like things were awesome in 1970.
TWILLEY: So now we’re at the start of the 1990s, and things are fully terrible. And then, although it’s kind of hard to believe, they got even worse.
GALLAND: In the 1990s is when this thing called bluefin ranching was invented in the Mediterranean. And, and that’s where juvenile bluefin were captured, put into ranches, grown to the perfect size, the perfect fat content, the perfect product for sushi, Japanese sushi markets. And that was where illegal fishing exploded. And you had now these pens in the wild, in the Mediterranean—pens, which were the absolute perfect vehicle for laundering illegally caught bluefin. Who knows what was going into those pens? But, certainly there was too much being taken. And, and that led to an, almost crash of the entire population.
GRABER: Scientists at the time were yelling that this was a huge problem, but the ICCAT governments were pretty much ignoring the scientists when they set catch limits.
TWILLEY: Remember, ICCAT is political. It takes scientific advice, but all these politicians were also hearing from their constituents who were making boatlands of money from the fish, and so they were using any sliver of reasonable doubt about fish stocks to ignore the scientific advice and set higher quotas.
PINCHIN: Because—and this is one of the things that set up a lot of the fights over this fish—is that you had scientists saying, you know, the stocks are plummeting, the numbers are estimated to be this much of the population. This stock is on the precipice of collapse. But then you have the commercial fishermen going out with their airplanes and seeing that many fish over a week at the surface. You know? And so you basically had everyone throwing accusations of bad data at each other.
GRABER: We’ve made an entire episode about this issue, it’s called, literally, Counting Fish. It’s incredibly important for scientists to try to figure out how many fish of a particular commercial species are out there, and it’s also really hard to do. That said, even with commercial fishermen spotting tuna in the wild, the numbers had definitely plunged.
TWILLEY: And yet still the policymakers at ICCAT listened to the fishermen over the scientists and set catch limits at double what the scientists said was the maximum to avoid population collapse.
GALLAND: And then the illegal operations, the criminal operators in the Mediterranean and elsewhere were doubling that again. So, the scientists of the nineties and early two thousands said 15,000 tons of Atlantic bluefin was an appropriate level that we could take sustainably, and would prevent overfishing. The managers then set those limits at 30,000. Illegal operators caught another 30,000. So 60,000 tons were being removed from a stock that was biologically capable of supporting 15,000. And that, naturally, led to the species being on the brink of total collapse.
GRABER: With such a valuable and also charismatic fish hurtling toward extinction, environmentalists leapt to its defense.
PINCHIN: When I think about bluefin, it’s in a sentence, it’s save the bluefin. You know, I was interested in saving the bluefin before I knew I could even eat the bluefin.
TWILLEY: The story of how the bluefin became a poster child for saving the entire ocean—and whether that actually worked!—coming up, after the break.
CARL SAFINA: Atlantic Bluefin Tuna is one of the most amazing fish, in fact, one of the most amazing animals in the world. It’s one of the very biggest fish in the ocean. It’s one of the very fastest creatures in the world. And it’s a warm blooded fish, which makes it really unusual.
GRABER: That’s Carl Safina, he’s a famous ecologist and environmentalist and in the 1990s he was all about saving the creatures in the oceans.
PINCHIN: He worked for Audubon, and he grew up fishing in Long Island. He loved fishing for bluefin tuna. It was one of these, kind of creatures he adored. You know, people adore bluefin. And so, he saw that the bluefin tuna populations were crashing. And he thought, what if I make this the banner species? What if this is the charismatic megafauna of the sea? Those are those animals with big eyes that kind of people can feel emotionally attached to, in order to protect it.
GRABER: Think about panda bears, or elephants—they’ve just got a lot more popular appeal than thick-shelled river mussels and red barbed ants, even though those are also endangered.
TWILLEY: In the late 1990s, Carl published a book called Song for the Blue Ocean, and it got a lot of attention. In it he made an analogy that hit home, he compared the way humanity was overfishing the bluefin and treating the oceans to the way Americans had wiped out bison on the Great Plains.
SAFINA: And the same mentality has been brought to the oceans. The same sense that it’s limitless, that we can never really take it all, that it will always keep producing and, it’s just not true.
GRABER: Carl was probably the most prominent voice trying to speak for the bluefin, but other environmentalists rallied to its cause, and the public got worried, too. But still, within a decade or so, things hadn’t improved.
GALLAND: And in 2009 there was a real discussion internationally about whether the trade for bluefin should be banned entirely. And this should become something that we’re protecting as an endangered species instead of managing as part of our seafood.
TWILLEY: And that push to list Atlantic bluefin tuna as endangered and ban fishing for it—that made ICCAT anxious enough to finally do something. They realized they had to do something or the whole fishery would be taken away from them.
GRABER: Governments all around the world agreed to dramatically cut the fishing quota for bluefin. They increased the minimum size for tuna that could be caught to protect younger, fertile fish and allow them to reproduce. And they started tagging fish so they could crack down on illegal fishing.
GALLAND: We are now requiring every individual fish to be electronically tracked from the time that it is caught to its final international trade. So, to use a practical example, if a tuna is caught in the Mediterranean, it’s now being electronically tracked through the ranch to the point where it’s harvested. From that point, to when it’s landed domestically in Spain, for example. When it gets on a plane, when it flies to Japan, and its last point of being tracked is when a Japanese importer takes ownership of that. That system has proved to be very successful. And tha, quite frankly, is thanks to Japan. If Japan didn’t want that system to be successful, it would not be.
TWILLEY: By some estimates, Japan consumes about 80 percent of the planet’s bluefin tuna catch, which is why Grant says that what they want matters.
GRABER: The electronic tagging and the quota reductions and the other regulations put in place a little over a decade ago—this all, finally, seemed to work. The numbers of bluefin have started to creep up again.
GALLAND: And now there is maybe—in the Atlantic, maybe one out of four, maybe we’re at 25% of the historic numbers. Which for a fished species, a a species that’s actively targeted by fisheries is actually an okay amount.
PINCHIN: And this is one of these kind of good news cases where you had a lot of concerted effort and a lot of science that started to improve over time.
GALLAND: The other species in the Pacific and southern oceans are more depleted. In the case of Pacific bluefin may be only one out of 10 remains. But again, the sort of relative numbers is a, is a good story because it’s showing that we’re starting to grow those populations again.
GRABER: Obviously this is, as Grant says, a relative improvement, but if you consider that bluefin were on the brink of going extinct, it is a real improvement.
PINCHIN: And it took that degree of consumer preference, and scandal in the media, to really put the screws on the governments to put in meaningful policies.
TWILLEY: Let’s be clear, the bar for success here is pretty low. And no one is saying even Atlantic bluefin populations are anything like what they were. No one is regularly catching tuna the size of cars any more, for sure. We have really reduced bluefin tuna in many many ways. But there is still an Atlantic bluefin population and it is possible to catch some of it without wiping it out altogether—and that’s what counts as a win these days.
GRABER: And then there was even better news last November. ICCAT met in Portugal, all 52 members, and they adopted a new and improved policy for managing Atlantic bluefin moving forward.
GALLAND: It was a hugely important moment for bluefin tuna management.
PINCHIN: It was this beautiful emotional moment for a lot of activists. You know, some of them are crying on the ICCAT floor. It’s, it’s really… a triumph. It’s seen as a triumph for science, in protecting the bluefin.
GALLAND: And adoption of this new policy should ensure that the short-term politics evolved from the nineties and the early two thousands are never going to be a problem for bluefin again. And that’s a strong statement coming from a conservationist like me. But there should be no more political negotiation of the catch limit.
TWILLEY: What is this magical new policy that brought the tuna supporters to tears? Honestly, it sounds like common sense, which as we’ve learned had been sadly lacking till this point. It’s basically a system that doesn’t allow for any negotiation about both the size of the tuna population and the number of them that can be caught. That part is just straightforward, no political negotiation. The data comes in from scientists, and the catch size is decided accordingly. Boom.
GALLAND: Now there will still be some politics because they have to decide how to divide the pie. This new policy just will decide the size of the pie. But what it means is that we shouldn’t have to fight over the size of the pie. And we shouldn’t ever have a situation where managers can decide, for political reasons, to set catch limits double what the scientists have suggested.
GRABER: This is a big deal because not only did the participating countries not have to listen to scientists, but also in the past they had the opportunity to push their own agenda every three years.
GALLAND: That process should have been informed by science. But the scientists became easy to ignore in a short term political struggle.
TWILLEY: Grant told us it took ten years of negotiating to arrive at this new tuna harvest strategy. But it took double that to get another exciting new agreement. This one doesn’t replace ICCAT, but does affect bluefin, and hopefully for the better.
BROADCASTER: An historic agreement to protect the world’s oceans has been approved, after ten years of talks. The High Seas Treaty aims to safeguard marine life in 30% of areas that don’t belong to any single country.
GRABER: Officially it’s called the Biodiversity Beyond National Jurisdiction treaty, but informally it’s the High Seas Treaty. And it’s a big deal for species like tuna, which range far beyond the limit countries control, which again is 200 miles off their coasts.
NICHOLA CLARK: And these areas beyond national jurisdiction or the high seas actually make up two thirds of the ocean. So it’s a really vast percentage of the ocean that lies beyond the control of, of any single nation.
TWILLEY: This is Nichola Clark, yes, a fellow Nicola on the show which is always a joy! This Nichola is a colleague of Grant’s at Pew, where her work has focused on this High Seas Treaty. Which protects thirty percent of that huge two thirds area of ocean that lies beyond the national limit.
GRABER: Nichola told us the high seas treaty is about much more than fish—and it’s actually a really big deal, there’s lots of important implications for things like deep-sea mining, which you may have seen in the news.
TWILLEY: But the key point is this new treaty brings a conservation lens to the collaborative management of the high seas.
GRABER: Which brings us back to Jane Fonda.
JANE FONDA: I think that this treaty that will lay the groundwork for creating 30% of the ocean into marine sanctuaries, that cannot be fished in, is so important. We have to save these creatures.
TWILLEY: And it’s not just Jane. Nichola also says this treaty is a huge step forward.
CLARK: What this new treaty does do is it gives us new tools and also new ways of holding governments accountable. And, and also a third, maybe a third piece is it gives us a way, and by us I mean the global community. It gives us a way to think more holistically about how we manage these resources in the high seas.
GRABER: It hasn’t been ratified by all the appropriate countries yet, though it was adopted by the UN in June. But the High Seas Treaty just gives the world, really a way to come together and talk about the seas beyond their borders with an eye to protecting biodiversity.
TWILLEY: And all of that combined makes Grant feel optimistic for bluefin.
GALLAND: I think the combination of that new policy adopted in November, plus policies adopted before that to address illegal fishing. And, and now this new potential governance structure for the high seas. We have all the tools that we, we need. And I, for one, am more comfortable about the bluefin situation than I ever have been in my career. If those commitments are implemented, we have a well-managed species that 20 years ago was the poster child for failed management.
GRABER: So for literally decades, I’ve known that I shouldn’t be eating bluefin tuna. Does all this good news change anything?
PINCHIN: Hopefully what it means is that, you know, right now, Atlantic bluefin… if it’s rod and reel or, or harpoon caught, you are good to go to eat Atlantic bluefin in America or Canada or in Europe. Which I cannot imagine being told in my lifetime. Like, it really is hard to believe, I think.
TWILLEY: It really is. And actually, Grant was a little more restrained in his enthusiasm for running out and scarfing down bluefin. After all, the population of these amazing, athletic, enormous fish—it’s still only a fraction of what it used to be. We did a lot of damage, and they haven’t recovered yet.
GALLAND: That said, five years ago, I would’ve said that we definitely should not be eating bluefin. And now I would—will say that… this has been a success story and I’m hopeful that assuming, if the policymakers follow their own advice and stick to their commitments, that this should be a good option moving forward. But right now, bluefin is a better option than it was ten, even five years ago. And one that, that we can probably feel a little bit less guilt for, when we order it at the sushi place.
GRABER: Thanks this episode to Karen Pinchin, her new book is called Kings of Their Own Ocean. And to Grantley Galland and Nichola Clark of Pew Charitable Trusts, we have information about their books and research on our website, gastropod.com.
TWILLEY: And thanks as always to our fabulous producer, Claudia Geib, we couldn’t make the show without her.
GRABER: We’ll be back in two weeks with a brand new episode, ‘til then!