Where would we be without a tin of tuna? In many kitchen cupboards the ever-ready tuna chunks have become the 21st century's answer to baked beans: quick, tasty, brimming with fatty acids and other healthy things. Sainsbury's alone sells 665,000 tins a week. What is more, this bottomless thirst for tuna fish is shared by most of the world. Between us we ate roughly four million tons of tuna last year.
On many cans you will spot a "dolphin friendly" logo. In the 1990s
tuna fleets were forced to clean up their act by fitting all nets with
special hatches through which accidentally caught cetaceans could escape.
These measures were successful, as far as they went, and have created the
legend that tuna is a "green" food, healthy for us, healthy for
the environment. Hence that happy dolphin.
Don't believe a word of it. Every chunk of tuna comes from a wild fish.
Because tuna are wide-ranging, fast-moving ocean fish, fisheries have
developed awesome techniques for catching them. Fleets use vast purse-seine
nets to scoop them out of the sea, while Japanese vessels, in particular,
trail lines of baited hooks many miles long.
Such methods are undiscriminating. The bycatch - that is, the non-target
species - routinely includes sharks, turtles and albatrosses. The ratio is
about four sharks caught for every tuna. According to the Shark Trust,
longlines operating off New Zealand have snapped up 450,000 blue sharks in
There are now ominous signs that the targeted catch is also in trouble. The
fish everyone wants to find in their net is the bluefin tuna. There are two
closely related species, one in the northern oceans and the other in the
southern seas. Both are magnificent fish. They grow up to two metres long
and can weigh 500kg. Yet, despite their bulk, they are among the fittest,
fastest beings in the ocean: sleek, warm-blooded and the ultimate in fishy
Two things are combining to bring down the bluefin. One is their slow
breeding rate -they take at least 10 years to become sexually mature, and so
are vulnerable to overfishing.
The other problem is that bluefin are expensive. A full-sized fish can fetch
tens of thousands of dollars. And a market that was once centred in Japan is
widening by the year. Many countries, including Britain, have acquired a
taste for sashimi - thin slivers of raw tuna dunked in soya sauce. Last year
we imported 1,600 tons of the stuff, worth £8.6m. But that is small beer
compared with the potential market in China, where a fast-growing middle
class eyes bluefin sushi as the ultimate gastronomic status symbol.
This isn't sustainable. Although bluefin can be farmed, no one has yet
worked out a way of rearing them from eggs. All farmed tuna are simply
wild-caught from the sea and fattened up. But stocks are becoming
dangerously depleted. Catches around the Balearic Islands are down to just
15 per cent of what they were a decade ago, and six Spanish tuna farms have
gone out of business.
According to the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) which is monitoring bluefin
closely, fleets from the EU, as well as from Japan, Libya and Turkey, are
routinely ignoring fishing quotas and failing to report their true catch
(and thus avoiding paying tax). Hence no one knows how many bluefin are
being caught in the eastern Atlantic and Mediterranean. But it is certainly
enough to put the population in peril.
"The fishery is out of control," says Dr Sergei Tudela, the head
of fisheries for WWF. "Bluefin stocks are on the brink of collapse."
The hungry market has brushed aside weakly enforced conservation measures
with contempt. For example, says Tudela, last year France admitted exceeding
its quota by 60 per cent. Evidence indicates that 50,000 tons of bluefin
were removed from the eastern Atlantic last year, despite an all-nation
agreed quota of 32,000.
Tudela is lobbying the International Commission for the Conservation of
Atlantic Tuna (ICCAT), which is responsible for regulating the fishery, to
adopt a strict recovery plan for the northern bluefin. He calls for an
immediate close season on bluefin fishing from May to July, when the fish
spawn. Beyond that, he wants to raise the minimum catch weight from 10kg to
30 kg. He calls for the EU to reduce over-capacity by scaling down fishing
fleets. And he insists on much better control and reporting, with observers
being allowed aboard all vessels.
ICCAT will meet in November to consider these proposals. The British
Government supports them. France, Italy and Japan, it seems, do not.
It is much the same story in the Antipodes, where the sinking species is the
equally delicious southern bluefin tuna. Australia has a successful A$280m
(£110m) operation based on capturing the fish live and fattening them up in
cages. Yet, despite strict quotas on the catch, the southern bluefin has
been declining year on year. Now there are barely enough left to sustain the
The man in charge of Australia's fisheries policy, Richard McLoughlin, is
angry. Despite an agreed national quota of 6,000 tons, he claims to have
proof that Japan has been catching "anywhere between 12,000 and 20,000
tons for the past 20 years and hiding it". By illegally taking A$2bn
[£800m] worth of tuna, Japan "has probably killed off the stock"
. According to the most recent estimate, only four per cent of the original
biomass of southern bluefin survives.
This species is currently classed as "critically endangered".
Without urgent intervention, the southern bluefin is probably doomed to
commercial, if not actual, extinction. But so long as Japan continues to
allow only Japanese inspectors on board its fishing vessels, and refuses to
install satellite monitoring systems, there is no way of checking its
catches. All scientists know is what that country imports. It looks like
stalemate unless Japan can be persuaded to see reason.
Can we, as consumers, do anything to reverse what is fast shaping up towards
a double whammy - the commercial extinction of two of the world's favourite
edible fish? Wait until the outcome of the November ICCAT talks, says Sergei
Tudela. If the talks succeed, there is a chance of saving at least the
northern bluefin. If not, then it may be time to look deeply into our green
souls. And to pass that sushi by.
For more about the bluefin crisis go to
What not to eat
Northern bluefin (north Pacific and Atlantic oceans, Mediterranean)
Caught by seine nets and long-line and cage-farmed (in the western
Mediterranean). The world's most expensive tuna, eaten as sushi. Much of the
45,000-ton annual catch goes to Japan.
Status: Data insufficient, but considered endangered in Atlantic
Southern bluefin (mostly caught off Australasia and South-east Asia)
Stocks have fallen by 95 per cent since the 1950s, and there has been a
supposedly strict quota system in force since 1985. Caught mainly by
longline, but also farmed in South Australia. Eaten as sushi.
Status: Critically endangered
Bigeye (tropical and temperate seas, excluding the Mediterranean)
Smaller fish weighing 4kg to 16 kg. With the decline in bluefin, fisheries
turned to this species, which is now also declining. Atlantic stocks are
down 50 per cent in 10 years.
Status: Vulnerable. Pacific stocks endangered
LESS ENDANGERED OPTIONS:
Yellowfin (tropical and subtropical seas)
Up to two metres long (200kg) but more usually 7kg to 25 kg. Likes to swim
with other large fish and dolphins, hence a large dolphin bycatch until
escape hatches were introduced in 1990s. Probably overfished, but stocks are
still fairly healthy. Sold frozen, canned or fresh as sushi.
Status Lower risk; conservation dependent
Skipjack (tropical and subtropical seas)
Smaller fish, 3kg to 7 kg. Often found in large schools near the surface.
Caught in seine nets or with line gear. No stock assessments since 1999 but
probably still fairly healthy. Skipjack is the main species of canned tuna,
with a catch rate of 1.5 to 2.2 billion tonnes a year.
Status Not threatened
© 2006 Independent News and Media Limited