The bluefin blues

Groups make waves in how some people treat our oceans

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For a look at one local restaurant that focuses on sustainable seafood choices go to: A sustainable feast

To read the National Geographic article “Still Waters: The Global Fish Crisis,” go to:

“The sea, the great unifier, is man’s only hope. Now, as never before, the old phrase has a literal meaning: we are all in the same boat.”—Jacques Cousteau

Even in his darkest hours, Henri has usually been able to find a source of light: Yentl, a good Bordeaux, newly laundered sheets, paella cooked over an open fire.

But, mes amis, the news from the high seas is not good.

We are committing marine genocide, wiping out entire species, putting the future of the planet in peril through the wanton destruction of its waters, which sustain it.

And it’s not just West Coast Chinook salmon, whose virtual disappearance prompted the cancellation of this year’s commercial and recreational fishing season in California. Scores of other species, from cod and sharks to coral, shrimp and loggerhead turtles, are also being wiped out—by illegal and unrestricted fishing by greedy profiteers, by gill nets, longlines and trawlers, and centuries of treating the seas as our trash can.

Consider the bluefin tuna, the most desirable food fish in the world, as well as the most profitable and probably the most endangered: By the mid-1990s, both the South Pacific and Indian Ocean bluefin had been reduced to between 6 percent and 12 percent of their population, mostly by Japanese fishing companies.

In response, the ships headed to the Mediterranean, where they joined armadas from other countries in systematically harvesting to near extinction a species that had been fished sustainably for centuries. In 1864 a single fishery—founded by Arabs in the ninth century off the coast of Sicily—harvested more than 14,000 bluefin averaging around 400 pounds each. In 2006, the same company netted 100 bluefin, averaging 65 pounds.

Not to be confused with albacore or skipjack tuna (usually canned for sandwiches and salads) or with yellowfin or bigeye tuna (commonly grilled), the bluefin is in high demand for its fatty sushi and sashimi meat. A prix fixe sushi lunch or dinner at New York City’s Masa is $300 (excluding drink, tax and tip), the tuna flown in daily, packed in organ-donor containers.

Located by spotters in planes, entire schools of Mediterranean bluefin are first netted and then transferred to cages, in which they’re fattened, sometimes for as long as three years, before being shot, flash frozen and shipped to restaurants and markets in Japan, the U.S. and Europe. The result is that fish are being killed at every stage of their life cycles; females, capable of producing 40 million eggs, never get a chance to spawn.

While there has been some attempt to regulate the fishing of Mediterranean bluefin, it has been largely ineffective. The fishing companies defy rules and quotas established by the European Union and the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tuna. Officials look the other way.

Granted, there are glimmers of hope here and there. The World Wildlife Fund, the Pew Charitable Trusts and the Marine Stewardship Council are working hard to see that fishing laws and restrictions are enforced and to establish protected areas where fishing would be illegal. In Iceland, Alaska and New Zealand, stocks of salmon and cod are healthy, thanks to rigidly enforced limits and restrictions.

On the local front, Henri was delighted to read recently of the health of Butte Creek’s spring salmon run. Plus, there are some restaurants, like Spice Creek Café in downtown Chico, that use sustainable seafood in their dishes.

The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society is a courageous and heroic (and controversial) group committed to preserving marine wildlife around the world ( Click on “Join and Donate.” Now. And the Monterey Bay Aquarium publishes a handy, pocket-sized guide to the most environmentally responsible fish to eat. Among the “best choices” on the West Coast guide are Pacific halibut and Alaska cod (from longlines), while the “avoid” list includes Atlantic cod, orange roughy and, of course, bluefin tuna. Go to and click on “Save the Oceans,” then “Seafood Watch.”