Politics of the Plate:
The Sushi Effect


High levels of mercury contamination made bluefin tuna front-page news last week, but the larger story might be not how much is safe to eat, but whether there will be any bluefin left to eat, period.

Speaking Monday in Barcelona at the Seafood Summit—a conference organized by the Washington, D.C., –based environmental group, Seaweb to bring together ocean scientists and representatives of the fishing industry—Alain Fonteneau, a biologist at France's Institut de Recherche pour le Développement, predicted that unless drastic conservation initiatives are undertaken, North Atlantic and Mediterranean bluefin hover on the brink of an “irreversible population collapse.”

At the same meeting, Sergi Tudela of the World Wildlife Fund described the bluefin fishery as “an icon of mismanagement.”

It seems like the species has everything going against it. Tuna are easily caught, particularly when breeding adults school on spawning grounds. They grow slowly, and can live as long as 20 years under natural conditions. Prices are soaring: A bluefin sold for a record $200 per kilo in a Japanese market on January 4. Prices, combined with insatiable demand, particularly in Japan, (Harvard anthropologist Ted Bestor called it the “Sushi Effect”) mean that far too many boats are fishing for too few tuna.

And the organization that is supposed to be managing the stocks, the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) is more interested in politics than in science. (Last fall, Carl Safina of the Blue Ocean Institute wrote this scathing attack on ICCAT—which he calls the International Conspiracy to Catch all Tuna.) How else do you explain the commission's setting a quota for this year that their own researchers say is almost exactly twice the level that is sustainable? Moreover, statistics show that somehow more tuna gets sold than is recorded as caught—a difference that can be attributed to poaching.

The whole situation is so depressing that those glaring mercury headlines might turn out to be a rare glimmer of good news for beleaguered bluefins. There's nothing like a newsy food scare to dampen consumer demand.

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