Oceans: The Bluefin Tuna Could Be on a Path to Extinction

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Fishmongers check the quality of meat on large tuna at Tokyo's Tsukiji fish market Jiji Press / AFP / Getty

I didn’t understand just how valuable a bluefin tuna could be until I spent a year in Tokyo. Before Japan, sushi was a California roll with artificial wasabi and too much soy sauce. In Tokyo, I discovered how different a meal could be with fresh fish, expertly prepared by a sushi chef standing sentinel behind his counter. And nothing could beat the meat of a fatty bluefin tuna, or maguro, sitting on a bed of vinegared rice. There’s a reason that last year a single record-breaking bluefin tuna sold for nearly $174,000 at Tokyo’s Tsukiji fish market. And there’s a reason that the bluefin tuna is in danger of being fished out of the oceans, the victim of the globe’s growing love for sushi. (Reach Krista Mahr’s great TIME cover story on the tuna problem from 2009.)

If the bluefin tuna is to be saved from overfishing, the nations of the world are going to have to agree on reasonable limits to the hunting. But there’s no evidence that will happen. Over the weekend the not very accurately named International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) rejected extending any new protection for the dwindling bluefin tuna. Delegates from the 48 member nations voted to reduce the 2011 fishing quota for bluefin tuna by just 4% in the Eastern Atlantic, down to 12,900 tonnes, and in the western Atlantic they declined to shut down fishing in the tuna’s spawning grounds in the Mediterranean or the Gulf of Mexico—despite the unknown impact the BP oil spill might have on the tuna’s nursery. As representatives from the environmental group Oceana pointed out, ICCAT’s “protections” will be little more than a speed bump on the road to extinction:

“This trivial quota reduction for the eastern bluefin tuna stock is a political decision, not a science-based one,” said Maria Jose Cornax, fisheries campaigns manager for Oceana. “Without an industrial fishing closure, it actually encourages illegal fishing and fails to ensure stock recovery. This political outcome is not good for the fish or the fisherman, and will certainly result in further stock depletion.”

“It’s business as usual for the western bluefin tuna stock as well,” said [Oceana chief scientist Dr. Michael] Hirshfield. “A token quota cut here, a call to investigate identification of spawning areas there—nothing has changed. In the meantime, the stock remains at dangerously low levels of abundance.”

It doesn’t matter that bluefin tuna populations have fallen an estimated 80% since 1970, or that the International Union for the Conservation of Nature lists the species as critically endangered. The fish are simply too valuable on the commercial market—the trade is worth billions, some of that off the books. Nor does it help that 80% of the trade goes to Japan, which isn’t shy about using diplomatic and financial muscle to keep the tuna flowing. (Tokyo helped block an attempt earlier this year to stop the international trade of the bluefin tuna as an endangered species.)

No one was really expecting ICCAT to take a stronger stand—environmentalists like to call the group, which is heavily weighted toward the fishing industry, the “International Conspiracy to Catch All Atlantic Tuna.” But the gap between what the scientists are saying about the state of the tuna and what international regulators are doing is growing by the year. I’d love to tell you how ICAAT came to its decision, but the deliberations and votes of the international body are secrete and closed to the media.

Bluefin tuna are amazing creatures. They’re called the “tigers of the sea,” but they’re even more astonishing, growing to more than half a ton and covering migratory routes that are thousands of miles long, at speeds of up to 43 mph. If they were land animals—if they really were tigers—I wonder if we’d even consider eating them, any more than we catch and eat big cats in the wild. But humans have always had a different attitude towards anything that swims beneath the water—even the word, “seafood,” shows where our priorities lay. If we can’t create strong international institutions that can govern the open spaces of the oceans in a meaningful way—with an eye towards sustainability for a growing planet—we’ll just end up racing for the last of the tuna, or the cod, or the salmon. But that needs to start with a change in our appetite.

More on overfishing and oceans in TIME:

Code Blue—Saving Our Oceans

Photo Essay:

Oceans—Australia’s Deep-Sea Creatures

And check out Sylvia Earle’s great TED talk on saving the oceans: