Can We Save the Bluefin Tuna?

Danilo Cedrone / UN Food and Agriculture Organization
Bluefin tuna, pictured here, have been heavily overfished since the end of World War II, with populations reduced to 5 percent of what they once were.

In 2010 the United States government supported a proposal by Monaco that would have imposed a ban on the international trade of Atlantic bluefin tuna under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).1 The proposal recognized the cold fact that these prized tuna populations have been fished to less than 5 percent of their numbers from just a few generations ago (tuna live about 15 years). Japan, by far the largest consumer of Atlantic bluefin, lobbied furiously against the ban, insisting that the fishery should be regulated instead by the more accommodating International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT). In the end, the Japanese argument for self-regulation prevailed.2

Though ICCAT insists that its conservation measures will ensure a sustainable bluefin fishery, this victory had little to do with scientific evidence about bluefin numbers; rather, it confirmed that a lucrative market generally trumps sensible conservation practices. Not only do the quotas remain alarmingly high, there are strong indications suggesting that the catch has exceeded the quota. For example, a study by the Pew Environment Group found that the recorded trade in Mediterranean bluefin was more than double ICCAT’s quota.3

The insatiable demand for bluefin and other tuna is a relatively recent historical phenomenon. In both Japan and North America, the red, fatty meat of large tuna was long viewed as unpalatable and only fit for the poor, while the rich dined on what were perceived as more refined white-meat fish, such as flounder and sea bream. Up until the mid-twentieth century, Americans considered bluefin to be splendid sport fish, but unfit for the table. Fisherman referred to it as “horse mackerel,” a term that signified its low status. Most were sold for pet food.4

This all began to change in the 1960s as a result of both shifting dietary preferences among the Japanese and the rise of long-haul cargo jets. After World War II, the Japanese became increasingly accustomed to red meat, first from whale and then, as the country grew wealthier, beef. The fatty red belly meat of large tuna—known as