Bluefin tuna, the real story

Aug 23, 2022 | Over the Bar

over the bar

By John Pappalardo

Bluefin tuna, the real story

For a long time, there has been a collective idea that bluefin tuna are endangered, something like the white rhinos of the sea.

The truth is very different, and much more encouraging:

Bluefin tuna are plentiful, in large part because of national and international efforts to rebuild stocks, and harvest in appropriate amounts.

That’s not to say conflicts and problems have vanished.

How many bluefin is the right number to land, while maintaining a healthy population, remains a big question.

So does who will fill that quota, how commercial fishermen and recreational fishermen can co-exist when both are chasing the same fish.

There are different ways to harvest, too. Harpooning, for example, “sticking,” probably is the cleanest, most focused fishery in the world, with little habitat impact and no “by-catch,” meaning no fish taken or killed other than the ones targeted. That’s not the only way to catch tuna, so there is plenty of debate as to whether different kinds of fishing should require different rules and quotas.

To add to the complications, these remarkable fish travel the world; strict regulations in our country don’t always translate or enforce elsewhere, sometimes undermining our efforts because tuna do not respect national boundaries — the same ones we protect here might get taken elsewhere.

Now there even are bluefin tuna pens, where these magnificent fish, built to roam, are captured and held, bulked up like chickens on a farm, contained and force-fed. That impacts the market for fishermen like those on the Cape who still ply the ocean for a living, who cannot guarantee predictable deliveries.

Yet for all this, there can be no doubt that bluefin tuna exist in great numbers, so much so that at various points buyers have told fishermen that the market is glutted, they won’t purchase for short periods of time. That in turn creates its own problems about how best to support fishermen who at some times of year count on tuna for their livelihoods — a different set from those who love the sport and hunt, who have time and money to chase big fish now and then in sleek boats, who seek the thrill and maybe tuck a few extra bucks into their wallets as they reduce the available quota.

Very few of us remember bygone days when giant tuna were considered a nuisance. They would muscle into weirs and tear up the bowls, wreaking havoc, sometimes 1000 pounds or more. Their name was “horse mackerel,” and massive tuna are indeed close relatives of tiny mackerel. For many years their main commercial use was as petfood, ground up and jammed into cans, worth a few pennies a pound to those who brought them home.

A few more of us remember when Japanese men arrived in black suits, ties, bowler hats and shiny shoes, walking our waterfronts 40 years ago, instructing local fishermen on best practices for handling tuna. They would urge that the animal be taken and bled quickly, avoid heating up the meat during a long offshore fight and steam home. They would core samples from near the tail, looking for high fat content, preferring fish that had been feeding and bulking up after a challenging migratory journey. The best carcasses would be wrapped in green rice paper, carefully iced to avoid scalding the skin or freezing the flesh, placed in large individual wooden caskets bound for Logan airport. By next morning they would be in Tokyo, sold by the gram not the kilo, and local fishermen made a lot more than a few cents a pound, sometimes legendary money from a single fish.

That can still happen, but now the market is more diversified, including local, regional and national distribution as more Americans understand and enjoy great fish, sushi included. But the best news is that more appreciation hasn’t created scarcity. By broad definition, management efforts have worked even as we continue to confront serious regulatory problems and access issues.

So for anyone who might still feel a pang of guilt ordering bluefin, don’t. Ask where the fish comes from, how it’s caught, whether it was farm-raised – always good questions. Then celebrate a great, ongoing success story.

John Pappalardo is CEO of The Cape Cod Commercial Fishermen’s Alliance


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