Bluefin tuna are in good shape, but do people know?
By Doreen Leggett
In April, in the throes of COVID, Red’s Best CEO Jared Auerbach started thinking about the upcoming Atlantic bluefin tuna season. He found some great news that he expected to be trumpeted by media outlets everywhere, but he couldn’t find so much as a mention.
“The fishery got upgraded and no one is speaking the message that it is a healthy fish stock,” he said. “Frankly, it kind of pissed me off.”
Auerbach, whose company has a presence at the Boston and Chatham Fish Piers, was referring to how the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch program, designed to help consumers and businesses make choices for a healthy ocean, had changed the bluefin tuna’s rating from red – avoid buying – to yellow – OK to purchase. This is based on a variety of factors but mainly that the stocks are in much better shape than years ago.
“That should be great news,” he said. “So the fishery got upgraded, but nobody cares now?”
Auerbach recalled that moment at a tuna chat on Facebook last week. Auerbach has hosted in-person events quarterly to discuss different topics. This time bluefin tuna was on his mind as the season just opened on June 1.
“We’ve been handling bluefin tuna for almost a decade,” he said at the live event.
The majority of bluefin tuna is sold to Japan, but Red’s also tries to keep a lot of fish in local and regional markets, so the yellow upgrade should help. Although Atlantic bluefin is heavily regulated in the United States – every harvested fish is tagged and reported to managers -- and the fishery can be shut down in 12 hours if total catch numbers are reached, there is a public perception that it is endangered. And it’s not.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has said the Atlantic Bluefin tuna is a healthy fishery.
“When seafood consumers purchase Atlantic bluefin tuna caught in the United States, they’re supporting robust environmental standards that bolster both bluefin populations and our economy,” said Randy Blankinship, NOAA fisheries division chief for the Atlantic Highly Migratory Species Management Division, in a statement.
They are some of the most valuable fish in the Atlantic. In 2017 alone, U.S. commercial fishermen generated an estimated $9.6 million in direct revenue from harvesting bluefin.
Still, the domestic markets could improve.
“We have always had a hard time moving them because it has a really bad reputation from a conservation perspective,” Auerbach said.
So he said he went on a bit of a “rampage,” calling around and finding out why the news wasn’t being shared. The only solace he received, he said, is that the people at Monterey said that if the numbers look good through June they will herald the change.
“There is a lot of evidence showing that all the regulations are working,” he said.
Auerbach doesn’t think the grading system is inherently bad, he just thinks it doesn’t perform well as designed.
“We are all for education. We are trying to give you information on what you are eating,” he said. “My dream is that people just learn to trust Red’s Best and trust the regulators.”
If a fish is rated red, and consumers are asked not to buy it, that changes demand, not supply, at least in the short run.
“All that does is decrease the price,” he said.
Scientists and managers set a quota based on the health of the species and fishermen go out and catch that many fish, they just get paid a lot less if the demand is weak.
“We catch the quota whether there is 0 demand and we pay a $1 a pound for fish or there is a huge demand and we pay the fishermen a fair living,” he said.
He called around to some big grocery chains about selling bluefin tuna and they didn’t want to. They were scared of criticism, he said.
“We work with fishermen who follow the rules, we follow the rules,” Auerbach said. “It’s really frustrating at times.”
There was a suggestion at the event Auerbach hosted about having New England tuna have its own certification. But Auerbach wasn’t fond of that plan. Getting certified costs money and fishermen operate at thin margins. He would prefer that information get out in conversations like he was having where consumers, fishermen, buyers and conservationists, who often overlap, get together and talk.
“The nation needs to know the status of the fishery,” typed in Michael Deskin Jr., a charter boat captain.
Red’s first of the season bluefin tuna was landed in Chatham, but there were people at the event who wondered how the season would go.
Auerbach said he isn’t expecting a banner year.
“Most of the high quality fish we get around here gets consumed at restaurants,” Auerbach said, which are not operating at anything close to full capacity.
Auerbach held forth on a variety of other topics as well, along with highlighting various fishermen who virtually popped in and out.
He said that the day after Governor Baker announced restaurants would be closed to all but curbside, his business dropped by 80 percent. Shortly after, the company developed a new platform that delivers meal-sized portions of frozen fish. It’s been successful and made him question why retail markets rely on selling previously frozen fish thawed out, which is more expensive for them.
“They don’t trust you to thaw it; that’s absurd,” he said.
Auerbach said some fishermen he has worked with are selling fish directly off the dock, which means less product is coming his way. He has talked to them about it and told them to do what they need to do to be successful.
“All these people who try fresh fish right off the boat will be hooked for life,” and that helps him, he said.
Auerbach said he eats fish three or four times a week; haddock, monkfish, calamari, skate, clams.
“I couldn’t conceive of stepping out and buying a piece of chicken breast,” he smiled.