By Roger Payne
What is the wild animal that is so prized for its meat that single specimens sell every day for enough to buy not just one, but two new cars, or even a small house?
Surprisingly enough, it is a fish: the bluefin tuna. I was 25 when I first encountered this magnificent, high-speed, migratory, predatory, archetypical creature. I fell in love with bluefin tunas, and they retain a firm hold on my heart. It’s not because I want to catch one—I’m not a fisher—it’s because bluefin tuna are such spectacularly beautiful creatures: the color of deep ocean water—a kind of blue you only experience if you swim in the open sea, hundreds of miles from shore; a color that has no equal in any terrestrial elsewhere; an inexpressible blue that makes these magnificent creatures one-with-the-sea, not just ocean occupants, ocean enhancements.
Bluefin tuna have a worldwide distribution in temperate and tropical waters. They can dive to depths of 1,000 (or more) meters (3,280 feet). Three species are known: Atlantic, Pacific, and Southern bluefins. Each is a top predator in its waters. The Atlantic bluefin is the largest of the group. The biggest ever caught was 4.58 meters (15 feet) long and weighed 684 kilos (1,505 pounds). They can live 40 or more years but require seven or more years to reach sexual maturity. Although bluefins pose no danger to humans, to small fish of every species I suspect they represent predatory “shock and awe.” Bluefin tuna sprints have been clocked at 70km/hour (over 43 mph). They generate and consume exceptional amounts of energy. Such production and consumption of energy produces heat, and that enables them, unlike the vast majority of fish species, to keep their brains, eyes and core muscles warm. Presto… a warm-blooded fish. A fish that can keep its brain warm has a great advantage when chasing smaller, cold-brained fish, because warm brains can think, calculate, and respond a lot faster than cold brains can.
We usually think of fish as being more primitive than us mammals. But every species of every kind, from bacteria on up (and sideways) is the pinnacle of its own 4.5 billion years of evolution, just as we are of ours, just as bluefin tunas are of theirs, just as earthworms are of theirs. Every living species is the very latest version—the very most up-to-date response to trying to fulfill the requirements of the niche it occupies. (Just as we are.) Every species, whether a gnat or a bluefin tuna, has been tested thousands of times in the course of its evolution, and those of its forebears that survived have made an adequate choice every time.
If you prefer to think of progress as a march towards species diversity, then as Jonathan Balcombe puts it in his enthralling book, What a Fish Knows:
“About half of the species of fishes we see on the planet today… underwent an orgy of speciation just 50 million years ago, and reached a peak of diversity around 15 million years ago, when the ape family, Hominoidea, to which we belong, was also evolving.
So about half of fish species are no more ‘’primitive” than we are. But the descendants of the early fishes have been evolving eons longer than their terrestrial counterparts, and on these terms fishes are the most highly evolved of all vertebrates…
We tend to think of the last 65 million years as the Age of Mammals, but teleost fishes have been diversifying much more during that time… The largest terrestrial mammals died out thousands or millions of years ago when mammalian diversity flourished. The true age of mammals is over. The Age of Teleosts may not sound quite as sexy, but it’s more accurate.”
There are fisheries for bluefin tuna in shallow waters, mid waters, and deep ocean, and they are caught with pole and line as well as with traps, purse seines, longlines, and driftnets. They migrate vast distances between feeding and spawning areas, though little beyond the barest facts is known about their behaviors.
The spawning grounds of the Atlantic bluefins are more well-known than their feeding grounds. One spawning area is in the Gulf of Mexico. The two other, best-known areas are in the Mediterranean. The larger of those is in the western Mediterranean, and it produces far more bluefins than either of the other two grounds. When migrating between their feeding and spawning grounds Bluefin Tuna are the ultimate travelers. They swim across the entire Atlantic Ocean and back each year. There are claims that an individual that was caught, tagged and released on the west side of the Atlantic, was re-caught on the east side just nine days later. The terrestrial equivalent would be to see a lion on a New Jersey beach (though even the biggest lions are only slightly more than half the weight of the biggest bluefins) and nine days later to receive an email from a friend in West Africa with a picture she just took of the same lion walking through her backyard.
When I was an undergraduate in biology there was a graduate student in the Harvard Biology Lab named Frank Carey. We became friends, and later, while I studied owls at Cornell, moths at Tufts University, and whales at Rockefeller University, Frank was studying large mid-ocean fish. He soon learned that Bluefin Tuna can keep the temperature of their brains and body-cores several degrees higher than the temperature of the seawater through which they swim. Fishing wasn’t Frank’s forte but he needed big, mid-ocean fish for his research. He befriended some Portuguese fishermen who were skilled at catching tuna. It was a great bunch of guys, and they loved Frank’s company as much as everyone did who ever met the guy. One day he invited me to help him empty a fish trap of Bluefin Tuna. His his friends had built it. He told me they had been catching bluefins that weighed as much as cattle. That seemed to me like a bit of an exaggeration, until we arrived at the trap and found eight, gigantic bluefin tuna in it. It took three of the strongest men in our group to pull each fish into the boat. One of them had checked the trap ten hours earlier and found it empty. But in the interim, those eight bluefins had wandered into it and had, as Frank explained, soon exhausted the oxygen in the water and drowned. He had also studied how much oxygen tuna require and had deduced that when they are stationery there’s not enough water moving across their gills to keep their blood sufficiently oxygenated. So they have to swim forward constantly just to stay alive.
The fishermen’s trap was a circle of tall stakes driven into the ocean floor, with netting stretched around its circumference. The trap’s entrance faced the shore towards which another net made a bee line from just inside the entrance to the trap. Bluefins following the coast would encounter that net, turn seawards to get around it and the leader net would guide them into the trap. The water volume embraced by the trap was about four meters deep by 15 meters across. But even though the tidal currents freely filled and emptied it frequently, the trap’s volume was too small to support eight large Bluefin tunas.
With the massive fish in the boat I could look at them closely, and, could touch them. There are no words… They were simply the most stunning animals in whose close presence I had ever been and have ever been. Their extravagant beauty, massive size and perfection of line left me in awe. Every time I have seen that species since, those same qualities have triggered the same reaction. Their color, body shape, solidity, texture, sheen, curves and cambers still have no equal in my experience. They are built for speed—cheetahs of the sea, many have called them. They are propulsion made manifest—high-performance, underwater, ultra-athletes. Before I saw those bluefin tunas I had no particular interest in fish, but ever since I have been captivated by bluefins as well as by the other species of giant, mid-ocean fish. Probably because most of them live in what I think of as the world’s most compelling environment—deep ocean.
However, the ultimate feature of bluefins that newly amazes me each time I see it is but a tiny detail of their anatomy. It is the perfect little slots that bluefin tuna have in their bodies into which they can fold their fins, thereby entirely removing fin drag. Once settled in its slot a fin becomes so flawlessly flush with the fish’s body surface that you have to look closely to see even the smallest evidence of its presence. This is also true of the little trim-tab-like finlets that adorn the top and bottom of bluefins’ bodies, between the tail and the tallest, dorsal and ventral fins. Unlike the larger fins, the finlets aren’t aligned with the Bluefin’s long axis, they lie at an angle to it—an angle that the fish can adjust. Yet those finlets can also be folded out of sight. It is clear that when a bluefin tuna wants the best streamlining and lowest drag in order to achieve maximum speed, it can pull in its door handles, mirrors and hood ornament, until they are flush with its body, and take off like a meteor. Pure magnificence, “Brute beauty, and valour and act… the achieve of; the mastery of the thing!”
And there was also that eye. We humans are drawn to eyes—moved by them, prepared always to empathize with an eye. They command attention—speak a wordless language. What had the eye of that tuna seen? What events had drawn its gaze? In how little light had it perceived images of a companion or of some delicious delicacy it could swim down (for bluefins can swim down every small fish in the sea)? Did it thrill to sunsets? To dawns? To storms? Did the owner of that eye linger in, or make side-trips to coral reefs just for the sheer pleasure of being immersed in all that beauty? And if it did, did it snack while there on some of the unspeakably colorful hors d’oeuvres that we so unimaginatively call reef fish? And how did it respond when it looked up through clear, mid-ocean water from 100 meters down and saw that circle of light into which the whole sky is always compressed? How had its vision shaped the bluefin’s worldview? And how had the bluefin’s’ worldview shaped its vision?
The bodies of the bluefins in our boat were so smooth and glistening I could see my reflection in their flanks. But as we drove back to port their skin dried off. But nevertheless, it retained an almost optical finish in which I could still see a blurry/shadowy kind of half-reflection of my head.
I asked the fishermen what they planned to do with this stunning catch? They replied; “No one around here eats bluefin tuna; there’s no market for them. But we’ll probably cut one up and give it to some of the local families that don’t get to eat meat very often. We’ll sell the rest to the pet food buyer in Boston, or maybe we’ll just barrel them up and keep them for lobster bait.”
How all-too-human; what do we humans do when we encounter such perfection (whether it’s a whale or the most magnificent fish in the sea—or as I would argue, the most beautiful denizen of the planet’s loveliest habitat)? We sell it for pet food or use it for bait. Is it a failure of imagination? A lack of vision? A dimness of wit? All three?
But this story about bluefins took place more than 57 years ago. I am now in my 80s and alas, Frank Carey died years ago. But Oh, how things have changed in the interim! Pacific bluefin tuna are now considered to be the best sushi in the world. They have become, pound-for-pound, the most valuable fish in the sea. In 2016 a single Pacific bluefin tuna sold for $1.76 million (yes, that’s not a misprint). However, the buyer was the owner of a chain of sushi restaurants in Japan and he intentionally overpaid. It was a stunt to create the perception that his sushi must be the best in the world because it cost so much (although price doesn’t equate with flavor). He knew that overpaying would give him plenty of free advertising for his sushi chain. And it did; it went viral internationally, in all media.
But even without such advertising tricks, the true cost of Pacific bluefin tuna is now so high that large, prime, individual fish do, indeed, sell for $60,000 to $80,000 apiece. And what does the news that someone just paid such a price for a single fish trigger in Homo sapiens (“the hominid capable of discerning”)? Well, the hominid capable of discerning succumbs to a frenzy of greed, and overfishes every super expensive species to near extinction, and at warp speed. Explosive exploitation of any living resource invariably destroys it and with it the prosperity it could otherwise have brought had it been exploited sustainably. The disaster occurs because what is being gained gets paid for by what is being lost. And what is being lost is the future.
Every fishery needs a plan, and laws which can ensure that it’s fished sustainably. Until such a plan is agreed and subscribed to, killing bluefin tuna or any fish unsustainably will always result in the species becoming economically extinct, or worse—biologically extinct.
It used to be that humans fished every fish species that had an ocean-wide distribution sustainably. But that was simply because our ancestors were too few and their technologies too unsophisticated to enable them to exhaust a worldwide species. But now we are so numerous and our gismos so crafty that as soon as any fishery catches fish that command a premium price, it triggers an insatiable global demand that is inevitably satisfied at the expense of the quality of life of future generations—both of fish and of people. And as for honoring and respecting the millions of years of evolution it takes to create a species of such incomparable value and stunning beauty… forget it. My long life has taught me that our species can be relied upon to use every excuse it can invent to keep on squandering the chances to fish sustainably, thereby sending one incalculably valuable species after another to the trash heap of history. It is a sure bet that because of their price, Bluefin Tuna will be fished down so close to extinction that even a minor natural disaster may be enough to push them over eternity’s cliff into oblivion. In fact, they’re already teetering on that brink.
Meanwhile, we will continue to ignore the value of a healthy ocean teeming with such splendid creatures—although if we let bluefins recover they would offer rewards so vast it beggars the imagination. We can no longer even imagine what the world was like before our forebears’ unenlightened reflex to overexploit erased the oceans’ incalculable fecundity.
And we will continue to ignore the need for saving the planet’s most magnificent creatures, just as we ignore the need to save the land, the water—even the air we breathe. But we won’t stop there; in order to make our reckless behavior seem more right, more acceptable, we will continue to throw our greatest efforts into defending the indefensible and justifying the unjustifiable.
If you think that I am being unfair about humanity’s collective, universal, time-tested myopathy, let us take a moment to check on where things stand for the three uniquely beautiful and bountiful species of bluefins. Here are the facts:
— All three species are overfished.
— In all three species, the population trends are downward.
— The IUCN Red Book lists the most recent status of the three species as follows:
— The Pacific bluefin tuna is listed as “Vulnerable,” which is defined as: “facing a high risk of extinction.”
— The Atlantic bluefin tuna is listed as “Endangered,” which is defined as: “facing a very high risk of extinction.”
— The southern bluefin tuna is listed as “Critically Endangered,” which is defined as: “facing an extremely high risk of extinction.”
So, there you have it: the three species of bluefin tunas face a high risk, a very high risk, and an extremely high risk of extinction. Yet all three continue to be fished at a rate that makes it unrealistic to hope their populations will recover until annual catches are reduced substantially.
The only ray of light falling on the wreckage of our actions is that some of the Pacific rim tuna-fishing countries (including obdurate Japan) have finally accepted a management strategy for Southern bluefin tuna. But before doing so, the Southern bluefin population had already fallen to only 3% of its original numbers, and the claim that it has now risen to 15% of its unexploited size remains to be seen. (Let the air with joy be laden! Southern bluefins are now only 85% depleted!!) However, the other two species (the Atlantic and Pacific bluefins) are still under intense pressure. Not even the smallest whiff of rationality has yet interfered with the mismanagement of those species, and both are still being overfished at rates that guarantee they cannot recover their former productivity for decades, and then only if there are no surprises. Just this year western North Atlantic bluefin tuna have unexpectedly produced a bumper crop. But instead of trying to augment that good news by allowing the species recovery to continue, many tuna fishermen are pushing for larger quotas for next year—thereby risking their chances of seeing a more prosperous future.
It’s like someone who has lost all but 3% of a million-dollar nest egg (i.e., $30,000). But when the value of his stocks unexpectedly tripled in 2017, and his savings went up to $90,000, he wondered what to do? Should he keep investing in his future or buy that groovy, $90,000 Maserati that he’s always wanted? The smart money says that if he buys that nifty car, the future he will face in 5-10 years’ time will be no better than what he faced the day he discovered that he’d lost 97% of his savings. But if he lets his investments grow for 5-10 years there’s a good chance they may build up in value—perhjaps even to the million dollars they were worth before—plus… he can also buy that Maserati.
By pushing for higher tuna quotas after one good year, Bluefin fishermen are all but guaranteeing that they won’t live long enough to experience the prosperity they could achieve from a recovered Bluefin stock. And let me be clear: when I say recovery, I mean the level of maximum sustainable yield, not the pre-exploitation level. And because maximum sustainable yield is only about 50% of the pre-exploitation population it will be reached much sooner if we will only let that happen. However, as I learned from studying whales, every percentage point by which you lower an overexploited population requires exponentially more time for the population to recover.
Japan’s insatiable desire for Bluefin Tuna sushi is creating a whole new taxonomy of shortsightedness. Even Mitsubishi has entered the fray. They were recently accused of stockpiling frozen bluefin tuna because they saw that if the species became economically extinct their stockpile would be worth a fortune. Of course, it would be worth even more—would be a mega jackpot—if overfishing could just go on long enough to drive bluefins to biological extinction. Hell’s bells, that would be a goddam BONANZA!
Here’s another example of how tragically unenlightened the human response has been to this crisis. It concerns the Trump administration’s response to learning that the status of the three Bluefin Tuna species are: “high risk, very high risk and extremely highly risk of extinction:”
Back on October 7, of 2016 (just one month before Trump was elected) the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) announced that in response to a petition from conservationists requesting that Pacific Bluefin Tuna be protected under the Endangered Species Act, that NMFS had decided to conduct an in-depth status review of the species to see if increased protection was warranted.
Of greatest concern was that the Pacific bluefin tuna population had been reduced to only 3% of its pre-fished numbers. There were also other concerns that motivated the group’s request. One was a recent study showing that large fish are particularly susceptible to mass extinctions and that the loss of such species can disrupt ocean food webs in catastrophic ways. Another concern was that most of the fish in the current Pacific bluefin catch are juveniles that haven’t yet spawned. This leaves low numbers of fish in the age classes that can reproduce. The result is that as the older spawning fish die of old age there are fewer sexually mature individuals left to perpetuate the species. Thus, it was very good news that the National Marine Fisheries Service was promising to review the case for giving Pacific bluefins more protection under the Endangered Species Act.
Let us now fast-forward to August, 2017. We find the Trump administration announcing that NMFS has recommended more protection for bluefins and that it has ruled on the aforementioned petition. And how has it ruled? It has rejected the petition, claiming that the protections that were requested are not warranted, even though both NMFS and the petitioners included biologists with years of experience in studying the status of Pacific bluefin tuna populations.
So, there you have it; apparently it is only the Trump administration that understands why it is better to maintain maximum fishing pressure on a species that has suffered a 97% reduction. That’s the kind of scientifically savvy understanding that Trump and Co. can offer the world.
Is there nothing, no matter how important, on which we can agree? Can we not set aside our lesser human concerns enough to ensure that we don’t risk destroying one of the most stunning achievements of evolution (or of Creation, if you prefer that interpretation)? Can we not bury our differences long enough to avoid making such an error? Can you or I think of any cause more enduring to which we might devote a bit of our time and treasure than trying to save this stunning and iconic species? Because if you share my belief that beauty really matters, then nothing actually matters more than saving the bluefin tuna.