The familiar image of Japanese businessmen lunching on nigiri sushi may soon be a thing of the past.
The world has fished past the point of "peak tuna." A half-century ago, much of the Atlantic bluefin tuna that found its way into fishermen's nets was thrown back or used for cat food. But when the modern sushi craze took root in Japan -- and spread to sushi aficionados worldwide -- demand for tuna meat skyrocketed. And tuna populations dwindled. Scientists estimate that because of overfishing, the tuna populations in the Gulf of Mexico and Mediterranean have shrunk to less than 10 percent and 15 percent, respectively, of their pre-fishing size.
But the fate of this storied fish -- whose qualities Aristotle extolled in his History of Animals -- may yet be altered when the international community comes together next month at the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) meeting in Doha, Qatar. Already, the principality of Monaco, headed by ocean-loving Prince Albert II, has proposed designating the bluefin as "threatened with extinction," placing it alongside such protected species as African elephants, mountain gorillas, and Siberian tigers. Most significantly, this listing would ban international trade of bluefin, meaning that Japan's favorite snack would become "threatened with extinction" as well.
Bluefin are particularly revered among the Japanese for their high fat content and rich flesh. A slice of raw toro, the fatty belly meat of a tuna, leaves a delicate aftertaste as it melts in your mouth. And sushi lovers are willing to pay top prices: In Tokyo, one piece of prize bluefin nigiri can cost more than $20. Most Atlantic bluefin are caught in their Mediterranean spawning grounds by countries including France, Italy, and Spain, but more than 80 percent of Atlantic bluefin tuna wind up in Japanese fish markets, where a single fish recently sold for $175,000.
But because of their status as a delicacy and due to advances in fishing technology, populations of Atlantic bluefin tuna are now severely depleted. Where fishermen once hunted the giant fish with harpoons and hooks, many now use modern vessels equipped with powerful sonar to find fish underwater and radar to track seabirds that gather around tuna schools, as well as giant nets that can efficiently encircle and capture entire schools of bluefin. Most tuna are then held in net pens and fattened on mackerels, sardines, and squid to increase their market value. Unless trends reverse, wild bluefin tuna might become exceedingly rare and off the menu entirely.
There are three bluefin tuna species -- Atlantic, Pacific, and Southern -- and all are hunted extensively throughout their ranges. Atlantic bluefin have fared the worst, and they've had shockingly little help from fishery managers. The International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT), an intergovernmental organization composed of 48 member states including the United States, Japan, and Mediterranean fishing nations, has been responsible for the conservation of Atlantic tuna species, including bluefin, since 1969. However, it has generally failed in this mission.
Under ICCAT regulations, fishery managers are supposed to set catch quotas based on the recommendations of scientists. Instead, managers have consistently disregarded internal expert recommendations. For the past 10 years, ICCAT has set quotas that have exceeded scientific recommendations, often by more than double. Managers have also refused scientific advice to suspend fishing in the Mediterranean during the full May-to-July spawning season, meaning that tuna are often caught before they can reproduce and help sustain the population. Further, though member states agree to implement ICCAT regulations, governments often fail to crack down on overzealous fishermen at home.
In recent years, ICCAT scientists estimate that more than half of bluefin catches in the Eastern Atlantic and Mediterranean have been illegal, meaning that fishing nations failed to report or underreported catches. In 2007, for example, ICCAT scientists recommended that catches should be no greater than 15,000 metric tons. ICCAT fishery managers, however, set a quota of 29,500 metric tons. And in the end, ICCAT scientists estimated actual catches at about 61,000 metric tons, more than four times higher than the recommended limit.
Such failures have led Carl Safina, a leading marine ecologist, as well other conservationists involved in the bluefin saga, to refer to ICCAT as the "International Conspiracy to Catch All Tunas." The familiar image of Japanese businessmen lunching on nigiri sushi may soon be a thing of the past.
Is there any hope? Yes. Because 80 percent of the market for bluefin tuna is concentrated in a single country, Japan, an international trade ban would have dramatic impacts, effectively stopping the race for fish and eliminating the incentive for illegal fishing.
But this isn't the first time the Atlantic bluefin has almost made the "threatened with extinction" list. Sweden's effort to list bluefin in 1992 failed in the face of significant political pressure from Japan (top sushi market), backed by the United States and Canada (fishing nations). In 1994, Kenya submitted a proposal to list bluefin, but quickly withdrew it after tough lobbying from Japan, a major foreign-aid donor.
This March, too, Japan is likely to be highly resistant. The country has already condemned the proposed ban as an insensitive attack on Japanese food culture and its way of life. But this time around, significant players are prepared to step up in support of protecting bluefin tuna. Even France and Italy, major fishing nations in the European Union, have recently pledged support for a ban on the bluefin trade. The United States has yet to weigh in on this crucial issue -- while the Interior Department and the Commerce Department try to resolve who has jurisdiction over tuna policy -- and the fate of the bluefin remains uncertain.
Sushi aficionados have over-enjoyed a precious resource. To ensure that bluefin are available for future generations, we must have the courage to make the hard decisions now. It's time to put saving the bluefin on the menu.
Koichi Kamoshida/Getty Images