Have We Reached Peak Tuna?

Savor that tuna roll, it might be your last. Barry Foy, author of the fictional culinary reference manual, The Devil's Food...

Savor that tuna roll, it might be your last.

Barry Foy, author of the fictional culinary reference manual, The Devil’s Food Dictionary, once wrote a story called, “Bluefin tuna finally extinct: ‘Well worth it,’ say sushi fans.” The piece described heads of state and film producers in Japan nibbling on raw beef and watermelon, both substitutes for tuna. Not everyone understood the story was an attempt at satire. And those who were in on the joke weren’t sure there was anything funny about the tuna’s extinction, which, to many, resembled the awful truth. This was nearly two years ago. Things are much worse now.

The bluefin is warm-blooded, voracious carnivore—the so-called “tiger of the sea”—and its fatty, deep red belly meat is highly prized by sushi chefs. A single piece of toro nigiri from the Atlantic bluefin can go for $20 in Japan. Much of the current obsession with fatty tuna began after the U.S. occupation of Japan, as the Japanese diet drew influences from the masculine, red meat culture of its occupiers. Consumption of bluefin has since accelerated and demand for this kind of sushi skyrocketed worldwide. Now, as Nick Tosches wrote in Vanity Fair, sushi satisfies “a killer sugar addiction, a preoccupation with health, no matter how misguided, and pretensions, or delusions, of worldly sophistication.”

Because the technology used to catch bluefin in the Mediterranean relies on rounding them up before they are old enough to breed, the method practically guarantees the destruction of a healthy breeding population in the wild. The fish are held in pens, where they are fed until reaching market weight. Sometimes, when other kinds of fish disappear in the wild, catches become so infrequent that fishermen forgo the species. This kind of commercial extinction can prevent biological extinction. But it doesn’t apply to bluefin. They’re exceptionally valuable: A single fish can sell for $175,000.

These fishing methods and our global obsession with the fish translated into a rapid decline in stocks of the northern bluefin tuna. Last year, the European Union cut the fishing season short, and, on Monday, the EU introduced measures that would ban the trade of tuna entirely next year (although small-scale fisheries, like traps, would be still allowed). Later this year, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora is expected to classify the bluefin as threatened with extinction.

News about the bluefin’s extinction might be a little premature, but it’s news you might see around the corner—and not just in The Onion of food news. The current rate of tuna extraction may be reaching the point of no return, when there simply aren't enough fish left to recreate a stable wild population. We may have reached Peak Tuna, and the end of bluefish may be near. It’s time to consider lighter sushi fare.

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