On “Eating Bluefin Tuna” in Sushi Restaurants

image I was recently asked a thought provoking question:

“Does eating toro – fatty bluefin tuna – bother me, as it is soon to be extinct due to overfishing?”

Honestly, it doesn’t really bother me.  The reason is that the more I talk to people, the more I discover that there’s a lot of rhetoric to the whole Bluefin Tuna issue that most activists in the US don’t filter and instead just ‘take the word of someone else supposedly knowledgeable about the topic’ as gospel. 

Hopefully some of what’s below will help "ease your conscience" the next time you step into a sushi restaurant.

Did you know the US consumes less than 10% of the world’s catch of Bluefin Tuna?  And we’re not the #1 or even the #2 consumer  of bluefin tuna… Japan first, Europe second, and by now it’s possible that China and a few other countries are out-consuming the US. 

While we’re not really helping, we’re sure as heck not the problem.  A whopping 80% is consumed by Japan alone… and China is growing rapidly.  And to be clear, these folks are willing to pay top dollar for the best fish.   When it comes to bluefin tuna, the great USA always gets the leftovers and never gets the best Bluefin available from fisheries.  (http://news.bbc.co.uk/…)

Even with being second fiddle, it’s a little hard to argue with US customers & US restaurants about the scarcity of Bluefin Tuna when it’s so readily available in virtually every sushi restaurant & fish market in America.  "How can it be bad?  It’s not like it’s outlawed/forbidden to sell commercially like Chilean Sea Bass was at one time?"

One reason is because there simply aren’t legal restrictions on serving Bluefin Tuna in America.  And how can that be if Bluefin is "almost extinct"?  The fact is, the National Marine Fisheries Service hasn’t listed Bluefin tuna as being an "endangered species". (http://www.nmfs.noaa.g…)

Bluefin tuna as a whole is not "almost extinct" – this is as much a literary exaggeration as saying, "I’m closer to dying every day".  The American Bald Eagle at 452 birds I think everyone can concur was "almost extinct" as an "endangered species".  (Now at over 10,000 count it’s made a comeback with the help of the Endangered Species Protection Act – ESPA)  Meanwhile, Bluefin isn’t even a "species of concern" (tier 1), much less a "threatened" (tier 2) or "endangered" (tier 3)species according to the NMFS.

To add to the complexity of the issue, Bluefin comes in multiple varieties:  Atlantic, Southern, and Pacific.  Pacific, which is most commonly served, is in far greater abundance than Atlantic & Southern which are in fact truly scarce.  Overall, it’s certainly becoming more and more rare, but it’s also being farmed as we speak. (See http://www.europacific…/ for tuna farming equipment)   Consumption of Bluefin will eventually transition to farmed tuna exclusively instead of wild because frankly it’ll be the only thing that’s available. (And hopefully by then it’ll also be prohibited by the ESPA.)

Now, I’m not saying that these great fish shouldn’t be protected in some capacity – they absolutely should.  (For the record, I’m an active animal rights proponent and a card carrying member of the ASPCA)  But "refusing to eat food" that’s not recognized as a species of concern by the Federal government is as ineffective a protest as PETA’s flashy naked ‘go vegetarian’ practices.  It’s "negative upon negative" advertising for the cause that simply creates hostility, turns people against those with good intentions, & does no one any good.  I wish more activists understood this.

I believe the only way to wage a successful marketing campaign that goes against the desires/trend of the public is to wage a feel good/positive one that gives people alternatives that allow them to choose right from wrong.  Help put Bluefin on the endangered species list.  Eat farm raised tuna only at home from the market.  Write your congressman about funding ecologically friendly sea farming. 

Ultimately, however, this is a self-fulfilling prophecy because unlike the plight of the bald eagle, this is a commercial venture and in the case of bluefin tuna, demand will create supply.  Simply put, if there’s a demand for Bluefin, and the quantity available worldwide dips to the point of it being infeasible to catch wild, it’ll be farmed maniacally to fulfill market demand… just as abalone, atlantic lobsters, stone crabs, and any number of other seafoods that were once rare and hard to find were.  Farming Bluefin is being done today  in Japan and elsewhere… it’s just not completely necessary yet because Bluefin’s so readily available today… and very far from "almost extinct".  (http://www.nytimes.com…)

…so I’m open to other arguments of course but in conclusion I simply haven’t been convinced by what I’ve read or been told on the subject, that this is a matter for me to be so concerned about that I should feel guilty every time I swallow a soft delicious piece of "fatty bluefin tuna”.

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