In 2010, after years of global headlines highlighting the runaway harvest of bluefin tuna in the Mediterranean Sea and eastern Atlantic Ocean, the international regulatory agency managing this endangered fish capitulated. It cut the total allowable annual catch to 12,900 metric tons, the lowest level recorded. For the world’s most valuable fish, coveted as the most succulent sushi on the planet, a return to plenty looked promising.
A decade on, however, the picture once again looks bleak for the giant bluefin. Seizing the slightest hope of a population in rebound, the organization mandated by treaty to safeguard this magnificent creature — the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) — has reversed course. In late 2017, deciding that a half-dozen years of reduced fishing pressure had been sufficient to spur the recovery of bluefin tuna, ICCAT tripled the total catch in the eastern Atlantic and Mediterranean from its 2010 low, with the quota for 2020 soaring to a record high 36,000 metric tons. This despite the fact that the data used to calculate tonnage chronically omit illegal and unreported fishing, even as black markets proliferate; a 2018 Europol report revealed that the illegal market in eastern Atlantic bluefin tuna was double the legal one, notwithstanding an international agreement and track-and-trace technology designed to stop pirate fishing.
And so, the destruction of one of the planet’s most remarkable beings continues, abetted by the very institution that for a half-century has been charged with managing — and protecting — the bluefin and other creatures on the high seas, including sharks, billfish, and turtles.
The slaughter on a similar scale of charismatic land animals would evoke a global outcry.
People tend to know that the Atlantic bluefin is threatened and that her flesh sells for a spectacular price; one of her Pacific cousins weighing 613 pounds sold last year at a Tokyo fish marketplace for a record $3.1 million — $5,000 a pound. But rarely do sushi lovers know her awesome qualities: that she once grew to be the size of a horse and swam in large schools with equally big mates; that she is warm-blooded; that she undertakes one of the longest migrations of any fish on the planet, propelled by an enormous heart as she darts from the shores of North America to the other side of the Atlantic in 40 days, somehow finding the narrow stretch of the Strait of Gibraltar to enter the Mediterranean Sea.
Created in the 1960s when industrial fishing intensified to such a degree that it alarmed maritime nations, ICCAT, on its face, has done a poor job of safeguarding giant bluefin tuna in the Atlantic basin. Estimates of the bluefin’s decline since the 1970s range from 51 percent to a staggering 90 percent. The giants that once weighed more than a thousand pounds have become progressively smaller in length and younger in age. The slaughter on a similar scale of charismatic land animals, such as lions or elephants, would evoke a global outcry, but a public disconnected from the marvel of sea creatures seems willing to accept the crash of giant tuna in the blink of an eye.
Experts in fisheries management have long discussed reforms, from vastly expanding marine protected areas to adopting an ecosystem-based approach. But these measures have not been widely adopted. To insiders, ICCAT serves its purpose by creating a zone where industry operates under the rules governments adopt to regulate commercial activity. Three years ago, ICCAT member states jacked up quotas to reward fishers who, in their words, “sacrificed” during the harvesting pullback in the early 2010s. Under the prevailing regime of value, an ocean teeming with big bluefin is not economically advantageous; ICCAT is tasked not with protecting the integrity of the ecosystem but with securing and distributing trade volumes — “biomass” in fisheries parlance.
Our ongoing neglect of giant tuna demonstrates that it is time to step back and think anew about how we view wildlife, especially at sea. At its core, the story of ICCAT regulating its way to vanishing fish should force us to reevaluate the limitations of treating non-human animals as commodified beings, itself an expression of our unquestioned belief in human exceptionalism.
Whether in home waters or on the high seas, management functions to ensure the benefits of fishing outweigh the costs. Regulators want their citizens to have food to eat, but this goal is also linked to pecuniary ones: harvest fish as resources to grow national economies, even vie for sea power by securing an inherited share of the global commodities trade. The whole enterprise hangs on relegating fish to objects extracted for market control and wealth accumulation. To carry on this work, experts must reduce fish to numbers of biological assets inventoried to maximize “yields” — profit — in the short term. In fisheries vernacular, “stocks” are “products” divisible by “units” to be “processed” and “transshipped,” destined for developed economies with infrastructures robust enough to deliver, in a matter of hours, chilled delicacies such as tuna belly sushi halfway around the world.
Detachment from life at sea is ingrained and widespread. To consent to the treatment of fish as nothing more than commodities is a stark example of speciesism, which assumes that humans — and especially the most privileged among us — are the center of the universe. Only in the alienation from non-human natures could the slaughter of wild fish across the globe, often with slave or abysmally paid labor, be justified. The inability or unwillingness of people to value and respect our fellow beings lies at the heart of our ecological crises. It organizes and rationalizes institutional arrangements and policy choices, based on the hubris that a world as vast and varied as the ocean can and should be mastered and exploited solely to our advantage by marginalizing and subordinating fish.
This predatory logic is baked into the foundation of ocean governance. Reeling from deprivation after World War II, when food insecurity was severe in Europe and Japan, a handful of industrialized nations heavily invested in expanding their fishing effort to achieve commodity empires. They endeavored not only to meet demand for food from an exploding human population but also to reap profits from nature that were seemingly available for free. Postwar optimism promised “progress,” leading to the proliferation of large factory ships, sonar, and, not least, a battery of models and metrics refined in fisheries science, itself long entangled with the fishing industry. These tools doubled down on the presumption that non-humans were fungible assets — strangers — on this earth.
Exemplifying this enduring trend is the guiding principle of fisheries regulation: maximum sustainable yield (MSY). Codified in a Law of the Sea convention from 1958 — pioneered by officials from the United States — MSY is now so pervasive that it has become the grammar of fisheries management worldwide. By definition, MSY exploits fish right up to the threshold of collapse, even as baselines shift downward and fish get smaller over time because they have been so relentlessly pursued. In this milieu, experts simply do the job asked of them under international law: “To secure a maximum supply of food and other marine products… in the first place… for human consumption.”
The consequences of legalizing this human-centered worldview have been profound. Since the contemporary framework of ocean governance took hold in the 1950s, the capture of wild fish has spiked on a scale and at a pace never before experienced. So fished out is the ocean today that to meet demand, nearly half the world’s supply of seafood comes from farmed — not wild — fish. The world’s poor in the Global South feel this development most acutely. They are no longer able to gain subsistence from coastal fisheries as they once did now that industrial fleets have plundered the ocean.
Aquafarms are not the revolutionary corrective. In the welcome center of a fish farm I visited last year in Norway, a film showed professionals in white lab coats thrusting syringes into the bellies of salmon to inoculate them against disease. With thousands of salmon cramped in cages, contagion was a constant fear. Feed is expensive, and so these carnivorous fish ate a plant-based diet composed of 70 percent genetically modified soy, supplemented by discarded shrimp shells to give the meat of farmed salmon a wild salmon’s characteristic pink color. Marketing could not erase the fact that the bodies of some farmed salmon are twisted, or that half of them worldwide are partially deaf, due to growth engineered at accelerated rates.
Consumers unwittingly think there’s always another fish for sale in a world of infinite goods.
A public detached from the lives of sea creatures is under the impression that aquaculture will release us from the harms of overfishing. Consumers with enough disposable income unwittingly think there’s always another fish for sale in a world of infinite goods.
Credible solutions to the global fisheries crisis have been around for some time. We must cut fishing subsidies — like those that have underwritten capital-intensive operations in such trading blocs as China, the European Union, the United States, the Republic of Korea, and Japan — and create marine protected areas or no-take zones. Evidence has shown that these remedies work. But such proposals are the floor, not the ceiling. They offer the possibility for structural change because they leverage the coercive power of government for the public good. By contrast, tweaks such as ecolabeling industrial fleets — controversially now proposed by the Marine Stewardship Council for vessels catching eastern Atlantic bluefin tuna — are counterproductive, and not only because they bluewash. They promulgate the fallacy that an individual’s purchasing power is enough to forestall calamity.
We must face directly the fact that the very system organized to care for wild sea creatures has contributed to their decline. This regime must be replaced by something else. The managed extinction of big fish represents the logical endgame of unrestrained bureaucracies whose leaders have been unwilling to take the tough steps necessary to head off the ecological destruction they have helped create. To view the problem this way begins to offer a way out.
The challenge now is to keep in mind who counts in what must be done. Fish and other non-human animals must have standing, too. This could be accomplished, for example, by widening the range of players at the decision-making table — including indigenous leaders, small-scale fishers, historians, social scientists, theologians — and by urging our governments to safeguard, through law, the interdependency of life as much as the sanctity of markets. Such an approach is the only practical way forward — practical because it acknowledges the enormity of the present danger of mass extinction and addresses the impasse resulting from the failure to let marine life flourish for future generations.
Evidence is mounting of the cognitive, emotional, and social capacities of sea creatures. It should incite our curiosity and inform our policies. A humble squid says hello to mates with an underwater light show. A three-hearted octopus changes color, pattern, and texture in seven-tenths of a second, communicating an interior life through arresting eyes. A sperm whale raises families over a huge swath of the ocean. Clearly these are beings to be respected and revered.
A colleague from Norway told me the following story. It happened in 2018, amid the impressive scenery of the fjords, where postcards do not capture the biological waste and chemical pollutants released into the sea from aquafarms. Operators discovered inside a pen thick with salmon an unusual visitor: a lone Atlantic bluefin tuna, who had made her way to Scandinavia as ocean temperatures warmed. So strong was the bluefin that she lashed and tore a hole into steel netting, suffering injuries to her nose and face. Divers caught and killed her inside the cage.
In the end, a research institute analyzed the bluefin specimen and found this: an empty stomach. Trapped for almost a week in a well of docile salmon, this sublime being did not eat a single one of the alien, captive prey that surrounded her.
This former ocean giant — smaller, languished, skinny, now dying alone — compels us to reimagine our relationship with the sea. Our task is to listen to more than our human kin, lest we continue along the path of mourning the loss of what we are destroying.