Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Tuna Country

Last night I attended a friend's rooftop barbecue in Brooklyn. As often happens in such a setting, I drank a little too much and stayed a little too late.

Early in the evening, another guest recommended this NY Times article (printed Tuesday, May 3rd) discussing the current tuna fishery crisis. I had not yet read the piece and I made a mental note to find it online today.

Later, after the remaining guests made our way downstairs to the host's loft apartment, I found myself in a discussion about a Pacific sailfish (Istiophorus platypterus) mount. One of my friends purchased the mount in a New York City thrift store several years ago. It's seen better days; the fish's bill is torn away from the upper mouth and the tail is only a stump. Damage aside, I admired the fish and explained to some other guests what a living sailfish looks like, bill and tail intact. I also explained that this was a fish distinct from other billed fishes, such as the marlin or swordfish species, and described what made the Pacific sailfish distinguishable from its Atlantic relatives (even though they are usually considered one species, there are “racial” differences).

An Austrian in his mid-thirties seemed genuinely interested in the information and asked me how I knew so much about the fish. I explained that my father is a conservationist and writer who is particularly knowledgeable about marine species. Although most of my knowledge of “game” fish is hand-me-down material, in my teens I spent a few days catching Pacific sailfish off Costa Rica. All in all, I was feeling pretty good about the exchange. The people listening seemed to enjoy learning a little bit about the sailfish.

Evidently, though, this was not the case. As I was saying my goodbyes, the Austrian fellow introduced me to a girl friend of his. “This is the guy who knows about the fish.” She laughed and said, “Oh, yeah? That’s interesting.” “Well, I guess it’s sort of ‘interesting’. I mean, it’s just a fish,” the Austrian guy replied. Ugh.

I couldn't care less what some random Austrian transplant thinks of me, but I always get a little excited when I come across an urbanite that seems to take an interest in natural history. As we become an increasingly urban species, the need for knowledge of the world outside our city walls will also increase. I'd assumed that my fellow partygoer was taking a real interest in the sailfish. In fact, he had been listening only because he thought it novel that I was talking about such esoteric subject matter; I was, I suppose, his circus monkey.

Realizing this, I was offended - unnecessarily so. I responded, “Well, I'm fascinated by the ‘natural’ world; it's vital to me and I don't think it's 'just a' fish.” I didn’t say this rudely or in a patronizing tone because, the truth is, most people feel the same way he does. Nevertheless, I headed home brooding, temporarily convinced that E.O. Wilson’s biophilia is not a gift inherited by all humanity, but a rare disorder.

The sailfish incident brings me back to the NY Times tuna article by Andrew Revkin. Revkin discusses at length the pressure exerted by longline fishing (see also the related post at Organic Matter), but he only touches on an essential part of the puzzle: demand. Tuna remain one of the most widely consumed fishes, whether canned, steaked, or stripped with a side of wasabi. In 1999, I ate toro sushi once or twice a week; one of my roommates, who later moved west to become a sushi chef in Los Angeles, practiced preparing sushi in our cramped NYC kitchen and I was the lucky beneficiary of both his successes and mistakes. I also went out to cheap sushi restaurants as often as my budget would allow. Tuna, tuna, tuna…I couldn’t get enough of it. As with any other meat, I no longer eat tuna unless I catch it myself. Trouble is, I can’t even rationalize tuna fishing these days. Tuna, like swordfish or shark species, has been added to the list of fish I will likely never eat again. The fishery simply isn’t sustainable given the present demand. As Revkin suggests, new limits must be imposed and accepted, but the only sure way to encourage lawful observation of such limits is a decrease in market demand. Just as a move away from oil consumption makes conservation and sustainable living more feasible, so does a decrease in demand for meats, particularly the large pelagic fish. Unfortunately, SUVs continue to fly off car lots and most sushi lovers can't imagine eating Sushi Combo B without toro!

Photo credit: John W. Mykkanen


chris@organicmatter said...

Thanks for tackling the subject of demand. The demand problem kept tugging at me while I was writing my post, but I wasn't able to figure out how best to address it. I'm glad that someone managed to find the words that I couldn't.

OGeorge said...

I too have given up tuna HH...and swordfish...and... Damn, but I loved sushi! As far as being "HIS circus monkey" goes, remedial thinkers find their own ignorance amusing without ever knowing it. And then there's the "trying to be cool" factor in front of his girlfriend.

Mikhail Capone said...

Don't worry too much abuot the Austrian. Who knows? Maybe it will make him think, and that along with other experiences will change his mind on the subject.

Unless raised in a particular lifestyle, most of us were once pretty uncaring about this, and it's a bunch of random experiences, speeches and images that made us realize about the world we live in.

As for SUVs flying off the lots, thankfully it seems to be slowing down (hence all the GM and Ford trouble, and Toyota's best month ever). Hope it will keep going in that direction.

I'm ovo-lacto vegetarian too, but I don't think I would even eat meat if I was the one hunting it. It's less environementally destructive, but if I compare the joy of eating meat vs. the joy of knowing the animal is alive out there, I'll take the latter. Just not worth it to me.


chris@organicmatter said...


What if the animal is considered ecologically destructive? I don't go around killing anything for fun, but in the case of white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) I can't say I agree that I'm happier "knowing the animal is alive out there."

Devo said...

HH, I empathize one hundred percent with the rise and fall of your heart as you discussed passionate subject matter with someone who SEEMS interested at one moment, but at the very next, it turns out they were just sorta playing around. I find myself in that type of situation quite often. My subjects of choice often tend further toward the philosophical and literary directions, but the events that pan out reflect your experience almost identically in spirit. I regret to say that these experiences have led me to become rather jaded and cynical for the most part, even though I've managed to preserve my inner passion for the more esoteric aspects of my chosen interests.

I probably think too much about my intellectual worth (whether it's questioning its reality or lamenting the "it's lonely at the top" arrogance it engenders), if that's what you want to call it... Especially when I find that I've just wasted an hour's worth of time, breath and thought on "interacting" with someone who just regards my passion as amusing at best. But at the same time, I also take heart in knowing that there ARE significantly intelligent and passionate individuals out there well worth spending that hour with, whether it's discussing the taxonomy of the pacific sailfish versus the atlantic marlin or discussing Heidegger's conception of Being and its implications on exponentially accelerating technological innovation. Another thing I try to remember is a nugget of trivia that I have never attempted to verify (a rarity for me) and whose source I can't remember. Its appeal to me is probably pretty narcissistic and certainly elitst, but sometimes I tend to be a bit of both... Anyway, it states that only about a thousand people participated in what we now know as "The Renaissance" in the 14th through 16th centuries. Also, along those lines, that very rebirth would not have been possible without such questionable characters as the Medicis and the Borgias...

Anyway, I thought I'd tell you about a moment of absolute nature-rapture I experienced last week in the BVIs. Simple, yet for some reason, profound. Anyway, it was night, and we were fishing off the side of the boat. Nobody was catching anything, but we were looking for fishies with a big ol' flashlight. All of a sudden, I started seeing these blazing orange lights under the water, in pairs. They multiplied, and soon there were dozens of the lights! Turns out they were tarpon. Eventually I could make out their outlines beneath the surface, flitting around and being led by these brilliant orange dots. They must have been five feet long! We never really caught anything the entire trip (save a barracuda and a yellowtail snapper, but we tossed both back, they don't really make great eats) but seeing those magnificent fish just kinda put me in this floaty, awestruck "holy cow" state. It was really quite cool.

gaw3 said...

I'm vaguely encouraged by how demand for supposed aphrodisiacs like rhinoceros horn has plummeted since the introduction of viagra. Is there any chance of a tuna substitute? --But don't even talk about farm fish!

Hungry Hyaena said...

Wow....a lot of comments and I haven't even been able to get online today due to work related silliness.

Anyway, I appreciate all the feedback.

Mikhail: I, too, hope SUV sales continue the downward trend. I'm not as confident about the average consumer's decision making, though. I'll try to share your optimism.

Devo: While I certainly don't fancy myself to be one of those 1,000 contributors, I'd like to think that if everyone took just a little bit more interest, the world could be a better place. I also agree regarding the number of "intelligent and passionate individuals" out there, but I'm lucky enough to know and hang out with a good number of brilliant, creative folks and only a very few know anything about the outdoors. By and large, my interest in wildlife biology and conservation seems peculiar to them. Sure, when I explain why I am so interested in these things and how very important they are to the world at large, they nod and agree, but ultimately, they couldn't care much less.

Also, your tarpon experience is a special one. My pops has written a book, called "The Silver King," on the Megalops atlanticus and I have spent many hours in Central America catching the fish, both in the ocean surf and up jungle rivers. They are spectacularly powerful animals and I am happy that they rebounded so successfully.

Gaw3: I can not think of a tuna substitute. That said, many people don't really recognize the different tastes of fish anyway - every year, thousands of "fine diners" order swordfish and are served any number of other species without protest. Perhaps, a true shortage of tuna will result in a new preference among gourmands. Let us hope so.

Mikhail Capone said...


Humans are a hell of a lot more ecologically destructive than white deers, so I'd do somethign about them first ;P

Devo said...

You know, HH, I'd be very interested to hear your thoughts on the recent "Chilean Sea Bass" fiasco that ripped through fine dining establishments and supermarkets everywhere. First, they rename a fish to make it sound more palatable to the average fish consumer, but the ruse works a bit TOO well, and now a formerly neglected culinary option has become a dangerously overfished victim of American fickleness? It all seems very constructed or something. I mean, how many other fishies are out there that are not only edible and quite tasty, but numerous and easy to catch? Gotta be millions of 'em right?

Hungry Hyaena said...

Well, Patagonian toothfish (Dissostichus eleginoides) certainly doesn't sound as appetizing as Chilean Sea Bass. I'm not sure why they dropped the region, though. What's wrong with Patagonia?

Anyway, the name change and the resulting popularity of toothfish is "very constructed." Toothfish were known to be edible and delicious for years so it was never an issue of starting a new fishery, but one of how to market the existing fishery to sheltered Americans. It was just spin.

I certainly hope we might find other fisheries to focus on, protecting the declining pelagic species, but the existing record doesn't bode well for those "replacement" species. Cod and flounder are examples of species targeted due to declines in other species; once these fisheries flourished due to relative abundance, but both have now crashed due to exploitation.

The root problem remains one of unsustainable fishing harvests and demand.

Devo said...

It seems somewhat simple to me... then again I AM somewhat simple, but allow me to speculate. If we had some sort of governing body that "produced" spin for these various species of delicious fish and also regulated the marketing of said various species, then theoretically we could cycle the consumption patterns of many different species, allowing one population to regenerate as we prey on another population.

I imagine this type of thing would be difficult to sustain, as we'd undoubtedly have a few renegade trendy restaurants advertising that they have the country's "only" supply of one of the "off-season" fish... and they'd charge dramatically high prices, undoubtedly...

Eh, I dunno. Now I'm in the mood for a nice toothfish filet.

daisymeme said...

"I had assumed this fellow partygoer was taking a real interest in the sailfish. In fact, he had been listening only because he thought it humorous that..."

He was interested in what you had to say, while it was just you and him. But because he was jealous of the girl's attention, and to deflect any of her attention from you, he put you down in front her.