Paul Greenberg looks at the drastic decline of bluefin tuna populations in the Mediterranean, and in the Atlantic ocean following the BP oil spill.
On the morning of June 4, in the international waters south of Malta, the Greenpeace vessels Rainbow Warrior and Arctic Sunrise deployed eight inflatable Zodiacs and skiffs into the azure surface of the Mediterranean. Protesters aboard donned helmets and took up DayGlo flags and plywood shields. With the organization's observation helicopter hovering above, the pilots of the tiny boats hit their throttles, hurtling the fleet forward to stop what they viewed as an egregious environmental crime. It was a high-octane updating of a familiar tableau, one that anyone who has followed Greenpeace's Save the Whales adventures of the last 35 years would have recognized. But in the waters off Malta there was not a whale to be seen.
What was in the water that day was a congregation of Atlantic bluefin tuna, a fish that when prepared as sushi is one of the most valuable forms of seafood in the world. It's also a fish that regularly journeys between America and Europe and whose two populations, or “stocks,” have both been catastrophically overexploited. The BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, one of only two known Atlantic bluefin spawning grounds, has only intensified the crisis. By some estimates, there may be only 9,000 of the most ecologically vital megabreeders left in the fish's North American stock, enough for the entire population of New York to have a final bite (or two) of high-grade otoro sushi. The Mediterranean stock of bluefin, historically a larger population than the North American one, has declined drastically as well. Indeed, most Mediterranean bluefin fishing consists of netting or “seining” young wild fish for “outgrowing” on tuna “ranches.” Which was why the Greenpeace craft had just deployed off Malta: a French fishing boat was about to legally catch an entire school of tuna, many of them undoubtedly juveniles.