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It Could Happen Within Ten Years.
Northern Bluefin Tuna (Thunnys thunnus)
Image in public domain because it contains materials that originally came from NOAA.
Until the advent in the 1970s of the Japanese market for large bluefin tuna (Thunnus thynnus), bluefins were banned for human consumption in the United States and Canada because of high mercury levels in the flesh. The noble fish sold for ten or twenty cents a pound as of 1970, and were ground up for pet food. Many of these magnificent giants were simply tossed on the rubbish heap. In 1971 I used to see 1200-pounders brought in daily to the sport fishing dock in East Gloucester (MA). There they were weighed and photographed, then hauled to the dump.
In 1971 Japanese market demands for sashimi started driving prices steadily upward. Before long, bluefins were worth a fortune. Within ten years a big one fetched $10,000. People went crazy. It was like gold fever. And the scarcer tuna got, the higher prices went. By 1992 the Japanese were reportedly paying $55 a pound. It was said that a big fish in prime condition could fetch $50,000 right over the rail. In early 2001 a 400-pound bluefin netted the fisherman $64,000. $160 a pound! More recently, a restaurant in Japan paid $175,000 for one bluefin! Prices have since declined, but consumer demand is rising in Europe, China, Russia, and the United States. Unless drastic protective action is taken – and soon – the species faces extinction. And the only meaningful action is for people to stop eating sashimi. Why should anyone care whether we wipe out the bluefin tuna? They’re not cute and cuddly, like pandas. They’re not cute and bright, like dolphins. Or gentle giants, like whales. But they are one of the biggest, fastest, and most beautiful fish ever to grace
the oceans. They’re powerful swimmers, their bodies almost perfectly streamlined. And to minimize drag, they can retract their fins into slots. They’re calculated to reach sixty miles per hour. They’ve been clocked well into the fifties. “There is a series of photographs called ‘The Chase’ taken off Nomans Land Island, near Martha's Vineyard, in 1986. The photographs show a giant bluefin tuna, weighing over 900 pounds, leaping, missing, leaping again, and capturing an Atlantic bluefish about two feet long. The giant bluefin has all the design characteristics of a fighter jet: supremely tapered shape, short fins like abbreviated wings, extreme speed. Those photographs offer a rare glimpse into the true majesty of these creatures. That bluefin was about Photos by Paul Murray. Quoted text by Matt Rigney, Author, In Pursuit of Giants nine feet long, with a burst speed roughly ten times its body length--90 feet per second, or about 60 miles per hour, through water. Water is 780 times as dense as air. Thanks to its supreme physiology and immense strength, that 900-pound animal was able to fly through its liquid medium at highway speed with a self-generated equivalent of over 50 horsepower.” I wish I’d written that. Sounds like Rigney’s In Pursuit of Giants (Penguin 2011) deserves a read. I know what hard work it takes to write nature books. I’ve published two, A Dolphin Summer (Taplinger 1985) and Orcas of the Gulf (Sierra Club 1990). Great reviews. Out of print, but I’ve re-released Orcas through iUniverse and plan to do so with Dolphin. End of plug.
Pacific Bluefin Tuna pursuing prey that has just re-entered the water.
Credit: Steve Dykes/Los Angeles Times
Is giving up sashimi too much to ask? Do it for your sake, as well as that of the fish. Sure, there are articles pro and con about the hazards of mercury poisoning, but why risk it? You know you can’t trust any data on a subject this politically loaded. Why did the government ban it forty years ago, yet turn a blind eye when the sashimi market boomed? And mercury aside, what other risks are you running by eating raw fish? There are rewards to be gained. A return to the oceans of forty years ago may be too much to expect, but any steps in that direction would be a great gift to your kids. And what do I mean by the oceans of forty years ago? Well, for example, in 1970 you could have cruised Stellwagen Bank of a summer and thrilled to the sight of giant bluefin tuna breaching from horizon to horizon. (Map of Stellwagen overleaf) Bluefin schools covering several acres were far from rare. And their smaller cousins, the mackerel, seemed limitless. Tinker mackerel were so plentiful that when my sons and I set out for a day of fishing, we never bothered to bring bait from shore. We just lowered a mackerel-jig over the side, almost anywhere, and caught all the tinkers we needed (kept them in a fish well – survivors released). Twenty-inch mackerel for the grill? No problem. Groundfish were still plentiful, too; almost at will, we caught haddock for the table. With any cod we caught, I made a delicious chowder. I had a dozen favorite spots along the coast where I usually caught the species I preferred. I used to lecture my sons and guests that we never kept a fish we didn’t plan to eat. Have you ever known a sea this bountiful? No? I’m very sorry you missed it.
Stellwagen Bank, the major inshore escarpment where whales and top predatory fishes gather to feed, has been declared a national sanctuary. It extends from Gloucester in the north (Cape Ann) to Provincetown in the South (Cape Cod).
Bluefin Tuna ©Antonio Medina Guerrero, U 1
Some Interesting Facts about Bluefin Tuna
Bluefins appear at about the same time in all parts of the Gulf of Maine. Fishermen in Nova Scotia and Cape Ann as well as Cape Cod count on the fish arriving by midto late June. This simultaneity occurs because the fish ride the Gulf Stream north from their spawning grounds in the Gulf of Mexico, then form schools according to size and head inshore at various points along the coast to spend the summer feeding. The size of bluefin tuna seen feeding inshore increases south to north, from "footballs" off the Virginia coast to 900 pounds average around Nova Scotia. The larger the bluefin, the better it can withstand cold water, and cold water supports more food. Bluefins fall into three closely related species; Thunnus thynnus in the Atlantic, Thunnus orientalis in the Pacific, and Thunnus maccoyii in Australian waters. Of all the stocks, the West Atlantic bluefin is in the worst shape, at just 10 percent of its 1970 population level and dropping fast. A full decade ago, biologists sternly advised a shutdown of the West Atlantic fishery. U.S. tuna exporters had their own analysts tweak the data, and the quota was increased.
But the West Atlantic quota of 2,700 metric tons is far more than can be caught. U.S. fishermen landed only 27 percent of their quota in 2005 and just 10 percent in 2006. There just aren’t as many bluefins left as the fishing industry would like to think. Giants (270 pounds or more), were so heavily exploited that most bluefins seen in the Gulf of Maine by 1990 were in their ninth year or less and weighed only a few hundred pounds. Scientists believe the West Atlantic bluefin will be extinct within ten years. Bluefins in the Gulf of Maine often feed with whales. One fisherman told me that on a third of his 1985 trips, he had seen tuna mingling with whales. He saw one big finback followed by a large group of tuna, each about four feet long (about 400
Young Bluefin Tuna (photo by Open Cage/Info Pics/Large_743: asap) pounds). When the finback took a turn, the tuna followed. Another fisherman recalled seeing a dozen giant bluefin tuna swimming alongside humpbacks to catch sand lances dribbling from the whales' mouths. Some humpbacks slapped the tuna away with their flippers.
No photo credit shown – published in the UK Independent
Not that we need more somber thoughts, but the current decline in bluefin tuna stocks may be coinciding with natural cycles. One Provincetown fisherman, then (1988) in his eighties, recalls that when he was a lad, some old fishermen (old then long since dead) could remember a time when there were no "horse mackerel" (bluefin tuna) caught in the Truro traps. This decline may have occurred around 1860-1865. I hazard this guess because bluefins were scarce in Massachusetts Bay from 1902 to 1904, then again in 1943, after which the stock slowly built back up to a peak in 1948. The data stop at 1951, but they hint at a forty-year cycle in bluefin stocks. We now appear to be at another natural low point, which would make the species all the more vulnerable to human exploitation. This is how a school of hunting bluefins might appear. They materialize out of the blue haze of distance as a sweeping arc of tuna, fifteen or twenty in all, spaced at such precise intervals that they form a nearly perfect parabola, its concave side facing forward. As prey fish are forced into the focal point of their formation, the bluefins close ranks and catch what they can, then regroup and continue their parabolic sweep. The bluefin tuna in this hunting school are about four feet long, each weighing some 400 pounds. Handsomely streamlined, they have dark blue backs, white bellies, and white flanks with silvery spots. Their colors fade to a uniform dull gray
soon after death, so anglers landing bluefins have little time to appreciate the beauty of their catches. There appear several more schools of bluefins, each containing tuna of about the same size. The smaller the tuna, the larger the schools seem to be. Some solitary adult bluefins, eight or nine feet long and weighing eight hundred to a thousand pounds, flash by at forty to fifty knots. The largest bluefins seem to travel alone for the most part, perhaps because they’re so fast that they have less need of cooperative hunts. But the big adults do form cooperative groups when needed, to contain large schools of prey. Excerpted from A Dolphin Summer (Gormley, Taplinger 1985).
I think they’re worth saving. I hope you do, too. Thanks for reading this. Your comments are cordially welcomed.
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