The Catch: When is it ever okay to eat an endangered species?
It’s hard to get people who care about food to agree on stuff. We disagree about small stuff, like what tastes good, and about big stuff, like what you should eat to save the planet. But there is one food that just about everyone agrees about: bluefin tuna. Ask anyone. It tastes delicious, and you shouldn’t eat it.
Monterey Bay’s Seafood Watch tells you not to eat it. Greenpeace tells you not to eat it. Journalists tell you not to eat it. A few years back, the celebrated Japanese chef Nobu Matsuhisa took a lot of heat for serving bluefin at his eponymous restaurants, and was roundly criticized by prominent voices in the food world.
I eat bluefin tuna.
I eat a lot of bluefin tuna. A conservative estimate is that I’ll eat twenty pounds of it this year. My husband, Kevin, will eat another twenty. We’ll serve twenty more to friends and family. We eat it because we catch it.
By “we,” I mean “Kevin.” At least this time. The early November day he decided to go out for tuna was a little too snotty for me to want to be on the boat, as I tend to get seasick in rough water. But there were reports of small- to medium-size fish out east of Chatham, and the moon was right. (On moonless nights, the fish, which hunt by sight, don’t get much to eat, and that means they’re hungry the next morning.)
Kevin took our friend Don with him as mate, and left the house at 4am. By 2pm, they were back, with two beautiful bluefin tuna—one for Don, and one for us—in the cooler. (Our license allowed us to take two fish, as long as only one of them was over 47 inches.) I cut ours up, and we vacuum-sealed and froze about sixty pounds of meat.
The reason it’s easy to get people to agree that bluefin is delicious is that it is delicious. It’s high in fat, and the meat—the belly meat, particularly—has a creamy texture and meaty flavor that earn it unconscionably high prices on the Japanese market, where most bluefin goes. No matter how good it tastes, though, Kevin and I wouldn’t eat it—and we wouldn’t fish for it—if we thought we couldn’t do it responsibly. But I think we can, because I asked the people who know most about this: the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NOAA. Specifically, I asked Brad McHale, NOAA’s highly migratory species branch chief for the northeast, point-blank: Are we doing a bad thing by catching and eating bluefin?
“No,” is what he said. But that’s not what other people say, I pointed out. To hear those other people tell it, eating bluefin is like eating, if not the last dodo, the second-to-last. What gives?
The science of assessing fish stocks is uncertain, he pointed out. It’s not like you can get them to fill out a census. And, given the uncertainty, it makes sense to err on the side of caution. The groups that advocate for a complete bluefin stoppage are taking the most cautious position possible—if you’re only considering the fish.
NOAA, though, said McHale, also considers the community that fishes and eats the fish: “We strike a balance between the needs of the users of the resource with the resource itself, something that other groups don’t necessarily have the responsibility to do.”
Obviously, if we fish the bluefin to extinction, there will be no resource and no users of the resource, so saving the fish itself is imperative. But NOAA’s take is that it’s better to save the fish and the fishing community than just the fish.
There’s no question that the western Atlantic bluefin tuna (the kind we fish for) has been wildly overfished, and one of the key indicators of fishery health— spawning stock biomass— dropped precipitously in the 1970s. Since then, though, tight international quotas slowed the slide, and then started to turn it around. As of 2014, spawning stock biomass had doubled from a mid-1990s low. While you may see the bluefin tuna referred to as “endangered,” NOAA classifies it as a “species of concern,” a designation that allows some closely regulated commercial and recreational fishing.
While the fish does seem to be recovering, McHale concedes that the improvement in spawning sock is “gradual.” If the fish were to be left completely alone, it would almost certainly recover faster, but the economic reverberations in the fishing community would be significant.
Kevin and I don’t sell the bluefin we catch, so our living doesn’t in any way depend on it. But we spend a lot of money on our tuna habit, and that contributes to the health of the fishing economy we live in.
Because tuna are big, strong fish, the gear you use to catch them is likewise big and strong. And, when it comes to fishing gear, “big and strong” inevitably means “expensive.” A brand-new rod and reel, with line and lure, is over $1000—and that’s for the smallest setup. If you’re going to troll for the fish (as we do), it helps to have at least three of them. We geared up as frugally as possible, buying mostly used equipment, but once you add in the harpoon, the gaff, the suite of lures, the giant cooler, and the flag with a picture of a tuna on it (not, strictly speaking, a necessity), even with careful shopping, you’re out the price of a decent used car.
Then there’s gas, and ice, and the sandwiches that we get when we’re going to be out all day, and the big container of cut fruit that we buy only when we fish. There are the services of our boat mechanic, who is fond of telling us that most marine engine problems can be pegged to “the little nut behind the wheel.” There is registration and permits and parking fees. There ought to be really good insurance, but we won’t discuss that.
And that’s just us. The opportunity to fish for tuna brings tourists to Cape Cod, and they stay in hotels and eat in restaurants and hire charters. And anyone who’s watched “Wicked Tuna” knows how much just one or two fish can contribute to a commercial fisherman’s bottom line.
I’m well aware that one of the reasons Kevin and I have come down where we have on the “to fish or not to fish” question is that we just plain love to fish. If you want to make the case that one of the reasons we think it’s OK to catch bluefin is that we really, really want to catch bluefin, I’m not going to argue. But we try and eat responsibly across the board, and the moment the good folks at NOAA tell us that the fish need us to stop, we’ll pack up our gear and call it a day.
Meantime, we’re having sushi for dinner.