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Bluefin tuna – on the brink of extinction

Why we stand to lose much more than an item off a seafood menu

The bluefin tuna has become such a prominent cornerstone of our consumptive culture that its name is rarely unaccompanied by the words ‘sandwich’ or ‘sushi’. For many generations, this enormous fish has nourished people from every walk of life — from the poverty-stricken to the exorbitantly wealthy; it forms at once a healthy meal and delicious indulgence.

Photo by Niall Kennedy

But what of this mighty predator of the sea? Many people who eat it have never seen pictures of it, let alone watch it swim in its natural habitat – which is where its true beauty comes to the surface. Unfortunately, time appears to be running out for the bluefin and its counterparts, and soon they may only exist as a distant memory, or frozen in lucrative stockpiles in a darkened Japanese warehouse, to be doled out at exorbitant prices to the highest bidder.

So, let us take a moment to revel in the beauty that is the living bluefin tuna, and discover why its imperiled state behooves us all to save it from extinction.

There are over 48 different species of tuna, and the bluefin is among the largest and fastest of them all. They can grow to be upwards of 680 kgs and can measure up to three meters long, although individuals of this size are now quite rare. They can achieve speeds of 70 km/h, facilitated by their unique-among-fish quality of being ‘warm-blooded’ – meaning that they can maintain a body temperature which is above that of the surrounding seawater. This feature is also what allows them to inhabit a wide range of ocean habitat, and is why tuna are found in nearly every ‘corner’ of the global ocean.

The bluefins’ average lifespan ranges from 15-30 years, during which they travel together in social schools of varying sizes, on a constant lookout for mackerel, sardines, and other such creatures. They migrate thousands of kilometers a year, but precisely where they go, or why, remains unknown. There are two confirmed spawning locations—the Gulf of Mexico in the western Atlantic, and the Mediterranean Sea in the eastern Atlantic. Sadly, this knowledge has been acquired out of the desire for their flesh and is of direct benefit to the lucrative commercial fishing industry.

Beyond these rudimentary facts, surprisingly little is known about the lives of bluefin. What we do know, and in intimate detail, is how to capture hundreds of thousands of them every year. Purse seining is by far the most efficient means of doing this, using enormous nets, the largest of which measure 1 kilometer long and 200 meters deep, which encircle entire schools and drag them aboard ships equipped with onboard processing and refrigeration facilities. We also know that bluefin fishing is a lucrative exploit— with individual fish fetching outrageous prices at markets. One particularly striking individual was sold for $396,700 dollars in a Japanese market.

Another fact we know about the bluefin, which is dutifully ignored by industry and regulatory bodies, is its position at the very brink of extinction, due to – surprise surprise – overfishing.

In 2010, a proposed Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species Appendix 1 ban on the commercial trade of bluefin was overturned, due to efforts by the major tuna-consuming nations. This sends the clear message that confirmed scientific evidence will be ignored, so long as profits and preferences of palate hang in the balance.

The longline fishing industry poses another threat to the great bluefin, particularly when the lines are set in their spawning grounds in the Gulf of Mexico. The main concern about longlining is the high incidence of bycatch: the label given to species that are caught accidentally and are less economically valuable. They are then discarded, dead or dying, back into the ocean to rot.

Incidences of bycatch in the Gulf of Mexico should disgust even the most ardent sushi advocate: Between 2001 and 2008, the pelagic longline fleet snared a total of 11,465 turtles; 3,361 seabirds; and 2,768 marine mammals. In addition, 75 percent of the tuna catch were juvenile bluefin, which are considered worthless if they fall below a certain weight. These too, were discarded.

Where does this leave the once-mighty bluefin? There is little to no discussion regarding their right to exist; there is zero consideration for their inhumane slaughter via a slow death from suffocation and severe lacerations, as can be seen in this excerpt from The End of the Line, a wonderful documentary which paints an unsettling picture of the current state of the world’s fisheries. Indeed, we regard the bluefin solely as the provider of flavorful meat, a delicious morsel in the container of resources that is the sea. I challenge you to find a single article anywhere that discusses this fish without any mention of its commercial or dietary value to humans.

The problem rests with our species, and our bumbling, anthropocentric attitude towards all life. Until we can appreciate the beauty of a living bluefin; until we can marvel at its grace and power; and until we can understand its social structures and nomadic life – we stand to loose so much more than an item off of a seafood menu. Let’s hope it’s not too late. 

Laura Bridgeman
Laura Bridgeman is director of Sonar, an organization that advocates for dolphin and whale personhood, and Campaign & Communications Specialist at Earth Island's International Marine Mammal Project.

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Pledge not to eat bluefin tuna at The Center for Biological Diversity has petitioned the U.S. government to list the Atlantic bluefin tuna as endangered. This could prohibit sale of and trade in Atlantic bluefin tuna and protect nursery grounds. A decision is due May 24, 2011.

One of the largest of the tuna species, bluefin tuna often contains mercury levels nearly triple that of the more common yellowfin and skipjack tuna.  Mercury contamination of seafood is a widespread public health problem, especially for women of childbearing age, pregnant and nursing women and children.  Mercury ingestion can lead to memory loss, developmental and learning disorders, vision loss, heart disease and, in extreme cases, can result in death.  To learn more about mercury levels in bluefin tuna and other fish species, please visit

By Catherine Kilduff on Tue, April 26, 2011 at 2:05 pm

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