Recipe for disaster

Demand for bluefin tuna pushes species toward extinction

UNSUSTAINABLE SUSHI <br> Captive bluefin tuna inside a transport cage are towed from fishing grounds in Libya to tuna farms in Sicily.

Captive bluefin tuna inside a transport cage are towed from fishing grounds in Libya to tuna farms in Sicily.

Photo by gavin newman COURTESY OF GREENPEACE

There may be plenty of fish in the sea, but none are quite like the bluefin tuna—the perfect predator by some opinions. Though it lacks the illustrious dentition of many sharks, the bluefin, which lives around the globe, can grow to nearly a ton, accelerate faster than a racecar, and sustain speeds of more than 50 mph. No smaller fish can escape a hungry adult bluefin, and virtually no larger fish can catch one.

Yet evolution never quite equipped this hunter to evade the pursuit of fishermen, and today the bluefin tuna is a favorite on sushi menus worldwide.

The bluefin’s bright-red muscle meat, cut from the flanks of the fish, is often served as maguro, but it’s the creamy, fat-laden belly that creates such a stir among sushi devotees and fleets of factory-sized vessels.

This revered flesh is called toro. At Gen Kai Japanese Restaurant in Chico, it appears on the menu about once per month, running about $22 for a handful of small slivers. At downtown’s Rawbar, toro appears even less frequently—and diners really have to pay for it. During the sushi bar’s New Year’s dinner, for example, guests were handing over $26 for just a four-ounce serving.

When such a morsel hits the tongue and melts like butter, it may be the climax of the bluefin saga and the most appreciated experience in seafood; but it’s a short-lived pleasure, and activists with Greenpeace, World Wildlife Fund, Fishwise and other groups are asking whether it’s worth the price—and they’re not talking dollars and cents. They’re talking the species itself.

Commercial extinction is approaching fast for the Atlantic bluefin. The fish now reside at just 10 percent of its historical biomass, and experts give the industry approximately five years to live.

Last fall, biologists warned fishery managers that the dwindling eastern Atlantic bluefin could not withstand catch quotas above 15,000 metric tons per year. The scientists even advised that 7,500 metric tons would be preferable—a catch rate that could actually allow the population to rebuild.

The 46 nations that fish for Atlantic bluefin, all part of a group called the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT), considered this advice and convened in Morocco in November to discuss the matter. For several days they scratched their chins thoughtfully and deliberated wisely before deciding to self-impose a generous quota of 22,000 tons of bluefin tuna for 2009.

RESEARCH YOUR ROLLS <br /> Along with his book, Casson Trenor has a Web site (<a href=""></a>) detailing which varieties of sushi fish are sustainable.

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That, some environmentalists say, could be lights out for the eastern Atlantic bluefin.

On the west side of the Atlantic, the fishery is managed separately, though just as ineptly, and the tuna are petering away. The local quota recently was set at 1,675 metric tons. Shared largely between Canada and the United States, this figure represents approximately 15,000 to 20,000 fish. Thing is, the fleet has failed to catch its limit in years for a lack of fish. In 2008, commercial landings equaled just 24 percent of the quota.

As the Atlantic bluefin ails, the eyes of the fishery are turning toward the relatively abundant Pacific stocks. But even these are failing to meet demand, and the tuna ranching industry is playing a part in the downfall. “Ranches” are floating facilities that capture, cage and fatten wild juveniles. The relatively idle fish gain weight rapidly on a diet of wild sardines, growing thick around the belly, and in several months they attain slaughter size—usually 30 to 60 pounds.

Ranching has become popular worldwide and is considered problematic both for its consumption of sardines—20 to 30 pounds for a single pound of toro—and its dependence on young tuna that will never get a chance to reproduce.

Many diners don’t know or just don’t care about these details; worldwide, they crave bluefin. For example, Rawbar’s fish buyer recently inquired with a Hawaiian fish dealer about buying Australian ranch-fattened bluefin. Not a chance; the waiting list was jammed up until July.

Most of the time, in fact, Rawbar’s toro is cut from yellowfin tuna. The purist sushi chef might smirk, but this leaner-fleshed alternative is a relatively safe one, ecologically speaking, and it saves the restaurant the $60-per-pound price tag of bluefin flesh.

Japanese Blossoms doesn’t even shop for bluefin anymore on account of the price, and the local restaurant’s toro is cut from cheaper hamachi (yellowtail), a species also facing fishing perils, though not yet as dire of that of the bluefin.

Some experts predict that the Pacific bluefin will go the same way as the Atlantic unless consumers quit eating it.

Casson Trenor, author and sustainability expert with Fishwise, a restaurant consulting group, addresses the subject in his new book, Sustainable Sushi: A Guide to Saving the Oceans One Bite at a Time. The Zagat-sized guide discusses each of several dozen marine species that appear under Japanese names on most sushi menus. The handbook advises against eating farmed salmon, hamachi, unagi, and other sushi standards, but bluefin tops the list of no-nos.

Trenor says consumers must shift from eating apex predators like tuna to items lower on the food chain, where creatures like squid, anchovies and mackerel grow faster, swim in vaster quantities and usually contain less accumulated mercury.

Greed governs the fisheries of the world, and unless we stop eating bluefins, the industry will keep pursuing them, and the bluefin will pay the price.