Swimming in a McMansion-sized tank in a nondescript warehouse in Port Lincoln, Australia, are 60 bluefin tuna.
They’re about four months old, a foot long, and might represent the salvation — albeit an uncertain, ambiguous salvation — of that magnificent, desperately threatened creature.
News of breeding success comes with the three bluefin species — Northern, Southern and Pacific — speeding towards extinction, the victim of something close to a marine version of the 19th century buffalo slaughter. In the last 30 years, bluefin populations around the world have collapsed. Fishing fleets with spotter planes have chased ever-smaller, ever-younger fish, catching them at sea and hauling them to shoreline pens to be fattened and killed before they’re even old enough to reproduce.
Despite alarm among scientists, however, overfishing has continued. Two years ago, researchers from the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas, or ICCAT — the regulators of Northern bluefin fishing — recommended a global quota of 15,000 tons. ICCAT officials ignored them, setting the limit at twice that number. They’ve since dropped it to 22,500 tons, but their scientists now say just 7,500 tons is sustainable. The fishing industry has ignored all those numbers, hauling in some 60,000 tons of Northern bluefin yearly. An independent review panel called ICCAT an “international disgrace,” a phrase that could just as easily apply to the management of Southern and Pacific stocks.
Ending the disgrace, however, is far easier said than done. Prized for their tender, fat-laced meat, bluefin tuna are a $7.2 billion global industry. In January, a 440-pound bluefin sold for $173,000 at a Tokyo market. It was the highest price ever paid for a single fish, and an object lesson in how, in the absence of sane regulation, impending extinction increases incentives for further exploitation. (It’s not for nothing that the Italian mafia is now linked to the bluefin trade; one conservation-minded ICCAT official famously found a white lily at her seat before a 2006 meeting.) Companies from Japan, which consumes three-quarters of all bluefin and effectively controls the global trade, have put an estimated 30,000 tons of the fish, worth between $10 billion and $20 billion, in frozen storage. Overfishing will only raise their price.
But people have long known more about cooking bluefin than keeping them alive. The fish roam for thousands of miles at sea, die if they stop swimming, and have proven unsuitable for the sort of farms used in salmon aquaculture. Even when researchers figured out how to design pens in which the bluefin wouldn’t thrash themselves to death, they still refused to spawn. That might finally be changing.
“It’s now a technology question, not a biology question,” said fish physiologist Christopher Bridges of Heinrich Heine University in Dusseldorf. “How long will this take in terms of development and experimentation? That’s the bottleneck. And I have no doubt this bottleneck will be solved.”
“Everyone in the tuna community was celebrating with them and for them,” said Alizur.
Having adjusted the Northern bluefin hormone treatments to fit their Pacific stock, they keep their fish in an onshore aquarium where water temperature, lighting and current are controlled. About 50 million eggs were fertilized in this artificial tuna love nest in March, ultimately producing the 60 foot-long fish now swimming in the company’s Port Lincoln aquarium.
The numbers seem humble, but the ability to conduct the spawning in a completely controlled environment heralds “the start of a commercial operation,” said Alizur. Clean Seas intends to have 250,000 bluefin at their hatchery by 2015.
“We still need to optimize the conditions of larval rearing, what to feed them, the best conditions, what they need for space and special food,” said Alizur. “We all get excited, and rightfully so, but this is only the first step. It’s a bit like giving birth. It’s a huge thing, but once the baby is born, you focus on the feeding and growing, and end up having a short memory about the birth itself. We’re at that stage.”
Other dynamics may yet affect the nascent industry. Some researchers suspect that Japanese bluefin aquaculture has been constrained by pressure from the nation’s fishing industry, much like American automobile companies squashed innovation.
Unless drastic conservation measures are taken soon, bluefin aquaculture won’t mature in time to reduce fishing pressure, said Ellis. In the interim, companies — including Clean Seas — will still catch bluefin at sea.
Aquaculture, “together with quota cuts, is the way forward,” said Bridges.
For Ellis, who refuses to eat bluefin, the ideal solution is to “not treat this great creature solely as a food item,” he said. “But I don’t have any hope that people will stop eating it.”