Worries Grow About Extinction of Bluefin Tuna

Overfishing plus the Gulf spill could drive the fish over the brink

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"Tuna's End," the headline for Paul Greenberg's piece in The New York Times Magazine, feels like it belongs on a movie poster. Greenberg chronicles the disastrous decline in the world's tuna population, and how a magnificent top oceanic carnivore managed to land itself in the middle of a bad intersection of issues: the advent of industrial fishing, illegitimate notions about tradition, much more legitimate squabbles about economic development, and the spread of decadent dining.

Greenberg isn't the only one worried about tuna right now. Among the many factors conservationists worry could lead to tuna's extinction, there's the oil spill in the Gulf: those waters are critical for tuna breeding, and the population is already on the brink of collapse, if not already (depending on whom you ask) well into a death spiral. Thus, the matter of tuna survival has been showing up in quite a few places aside from The New York Times recently. Here, the Wire collects some of the recent strands of this debate:


  • Longform Tuna Journalism Greenberg first sets about debunking the notion that tuna is a traditional and integral component of Japan's sushi culture. "Before 1800, Japanese tuna sushi didn't even exist." Red-flesh fish spoiled quickly, and even in the twentieth century (by which point tuna sushi became common) bluefin--rather than more local and less "environmentally sensitive" yellowfin--tuna fishing only really took off in the '60s and '70s. Greenberg notes that, between economic considerations--Japan's "dependence on seafood" comes up--and tensions between developed and developing countries, "no single nation is ready to commit to a sustainable future for the fish." Yet many conservationists believe the situation to be so dire that tuna fishing must--at least temporarily--be halted entirely, and the only way to manage the oceans for the long term would involve vast marine reserves where fishing of all varieties is banned entirely.
  • BP Dispersant Bad News The dispersant used in the Gulf, writes Kandy Stroud at The Huffington Post, may be keeping the oil out of sight and below the surface --good for BP, because much of it remains invisible--but it is causing a depletion of oxygen as well as causing oil to remain at deep sea levels. Marlin, grouper, shark, whales, snapper and tuna swim hundreds of feet down and will inevitably swim through it." She cites one scientist who thinks this disaster, coming on top of recent overfishing, "could be an end to bluefin tuna."
  • Depends on Time of Spawning, explain Businessweek's Bruce Einhorn and Stuart Biggs. "The chemicals BP is using to contain the spill could damage the bluefin larvae produced by adults that spawned in the Gulf." Crucially, tuna spawn "at the surface," and if they spawned after the spill this year "they may have gotten coated with oil." We'd only know the extent of the damage in three to four years, when "a weakened, underpopulated generation of bluefin would show something serious happened." Then again, "some fishermen ... say enough of the spawning occurred before the Apr. 20 spill to minimize the damage."
  • Why Aren't Tuna on the Endangered Species List? wonders progressive Marcy Wheeler of the Firedoglake group. "If a bunch of elites have to give up their Maguro sushi, it'll highlight both the problem with overfishing generally and the concrete way in which our oil-addicted lifestyle endangers the little perks of life we love (and don't get me wrong--I love Maguro sushi too)."
  • Four Mammals, Four Birds, Four Fish Jason Kottke points out that, though this isn't the primary topic of the New York Times Magazine article, "Greenberg has written extensively on this and related topics in his forthcoming book,Four Fish . Humans have primarily selected four mammals (cows, pigs, sheep and goats) and four birds (chickens, turkeys, ducks and geese) to utilize for food, and are now in the process of choosing four fish (cod, salmon, tuna, and bass)."
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.