Protecting Ocean Ecosystems

Bluefin Tuna: Value Beyond Measure

Members of Congress are seeking a higher U.S. allocation of Atlantic bluefin tuna.

Editor’s note: This post is excerpted from Brian’s recent book, Ocean Soul. It was also published on the New England Ocean Odyssey website.

I’ll never forget the first time I saw a bluefin tuna in the wild for I knew instantly that I was seeing a supreme ocean creature. I had heard reports that bluefin were feeding about 25 miles off the Outer Banks of North Carolina, and so I made three separate trips to Cape Hatteras, with only the last producing any results. On that final trip, in the winter of 1995, I got into the water alone and found myself among dozens of fish, all weighing 500–700 pounds. I watched these majestic fish rocket past me with contrails of bubbles escaping from their gills. I suppose I should have been afraid of being hit by something so large and powerful, but rather than fear I was struck with awe instead. Sun glinted off their reflective torsos and the small, yellow fins near the sickle-shaped tail glowed in the blue water as they fed near the surface. This singular experience fueled my passion for these elusive fish, and ever since I’ve learning all that I can about them and dreamed about swimming with them again.

Fifteen years later I pitched National Geographic magazine on a story about bluefin off the coast of Nova Scotia. It was there that I could find the last of the giants—bluefin weighing as much as 1,200 pounds. They migrated there through New England waters in the fall, to feed on fatty fish such as mackerel and herring. I hoped that in the last few days before the opening of the commercial fishing season, I would get another chance to swim alongside these ultimate beings.

In the dark, green, chilly waters they materialized, massive beings with large eyes that I knew were watching my every move long before I saw them. These fish were nearly 10 feet in length and several feet thick and moved unlike anything else I had seen underwater. I watched them rocket up from the depths, turn on a dime while flashing colors then disappear back into the gloom. I was even more impressed than during our first interaction years before. Ten to fifteen giants swam around me and I spun around three hundred and sixty degrees and looked around on all axes trying to follow their movements. As they passed by I rolled in the wake of their mighty bulk. Mesmerized by this fluid scene, I forced myself out of the trance I was in and began making pictures but just kept repeating over and over in my head, “these are perfect oceanic creatures.”

To be underwater with these magnificent animals is to witness the divine sense of nature. They are true thoroughbreds of the sea, with few if any equals. This is an animal that swims across entire oceans in the course of each year and is capable of generating heat that allows it to travel practically from the equator to the poles. With a streamlined design that has been studied by naval engineers, they swim faster than a torpedo and likely possess physical endurance that we can hardly fathom. It is a warm-blooded fish that continues to grow its entire life—a 30-year-old bluefin can weigh more than a ton.

How I wish everyone saw bluefin tuna the way I have, for being underwater with them I know of their greatness and am certain they possess abilities and hold secrets we can barely imagine. It is no wonder to me that early man painted pictures of bluefin tuna on cave walls in reverence or that Plato mused about their migrations, which once consisted of schools of unimaginable numbers.

Unfortunately, most only encounter tuna on their dinner plates as sushi or the protein entrée next to vegetables and rice. When they think of tuna, by habit they think seafood. They buy fish at markets and in restaurants with little, if any, information about how or where it is caught or under what circumstances. Few know anything about the incredible animal they are eating, and this is, I believe, the essence of the problem in the over-fishing crisis facing our oceans.

Since the end of World War II, commercial fishing fleets have spread throughout the world’s oceans, gathering up its wildlife for food at alarming rates. Scientists have determined that in just the last 60 years more than 90 percent of the ocean’s large predatory fish have disappeared. These include tuna, billfish, and sharks—nearly all gone. Even if these statistics were only half right, it would be a tragic situation, but to lose this many important creatures is devastating. Yet it has happened, and few people have any idea, because so much of what happens in the ocean occurs out of sight.

Bluefin tuna and other large fish of the open ocean have been called the lions and tigers of the sea. Thinking about their terrestrial counterparts is useful, since it throws into relief how differently we think about wildlife on land and wildlife in the sea. I don’t believe that we would allow such a majestic creature as a bluefin tuna to perish from the planet if it lived on land. Nor would we think of eating the top land predators, such as lions or tigers.

Just a few decades ago, bluefin tuna had little or no value. They were caught in New England waters as “horse mackerel” and often buried on the beach or maybe sold as cat food for pennies a pound. As the Japanese developed a taste for sushi in the 1970s, however, things changed rapidly and today bluefin are on the brink. The worldwide lust for sushi has made bluefin the most valuable animals on the planet, with single fish fetching hundreds of thousands of dollars. My hope is that somehow, some way, we can create a new view of these creatures, one in which their value is not calculated in dollars, but rather in magnificence. For if this was the measure, revering them for the incredible creatures they are and the abilities they possess rather than only for their flesh, their numbers would build and the sea would begin to return to the way it once was.


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