One of the ironies of the so-called “intelligent design” movement is that its proponents often miss what could be their most heralded showpieces. Give their horrified anthropomorphic worldview, they usually overlook evolution’s most spectacular accomplishments. Picture a fish capable of swimming at speeds up to 80 kilometers per hour and able to navigate entire oceans, thousands of miles a month; a warm bodied creature that can practically maintain the body temperature of a mammal a kilometer below the sea surface; a fish so mechanically efficient that when scientists endeavored to build a mechanical fish this same fish was used as a model.
All of the above characteristics describe the bluefin tuna and bizarre as it may appear, it is on the verge of being eaten into extinction. Until a few decades ago this majestic fish was considered suitable food only for dogs, cats, and horses, or as prize game for fishermen to battle with and then bury after the hunt. However times have grown worse since then as blue fin tuna has in recent decades, under the menu name maguro, been the prize catch of chic sushi bars that have sprouted around the world. A single one can sell for over $100,000 in a Tokyo fish market and tuna hunts have come to include some of the hallmarks of modern warfare such as the use of spotter planes, radar, and electrical harpoons.
The bluefin tuna isn’t the only species of fish to recklessly fall prey to the taste of trendy society. Ones so evolutionary perfect that they haven’t needed to evolve an iota in millions of years, which were residing in the ocean in the ocean millions of years before the dinosaurs ever existed are slaughtered for their fins to the main ingredient in an expensive soup, or are discarded as by-catch by industrial fishing technology. This describes sharks, most of whose populations declined significantly in the past quarter century, threatening to do irreparable damage to the ocean’s food chain (sharks being notoriously slow breeders, recovery from over fishing is difficult). An estimated 100 million sharks a year are killed for their fins to be used for shark fin soup, a delicacy that fetches a $100 a bowl from the newly rich in China.
While Tokyo remains the world’s sushi capital, its spread, for whatever reason, has followed the new global elite like an economic indicator to Moscow, Dubai, India, and China, soon to be the biggest market of all. In his celebratory book The Sushi Economy: The Making of a Modern Delicacy, Sasha Issenberg puts it one way:
Culturally, sushi denotes a certain type of material
sophistication, a declaration that we are confidently
rich enough not to be impressed by volume and refined enough
to savor good things in small doses…More than any other
food, possibly more than any other commodity, to eat sushi
is to display an access to advanced trade markets, of full
engagement in world commerce.
Fishing methods used today in pursuit of such delicacies include long-lining, which consists of a single boat setting a monofilament line across 60 plus miles of ocean, each of which bears lines baited with up to 10,000 hooks, and trawling, or dragging nets equipped for 15 tons of gear across the ocean floor destroying everything in their path- in effect blatantly bulldozing the underwater ecosystem. In the riveting science fiction novel The Swarm, Frank Schatzing imagines a time when the oceans, incited by an all knowing life form called the Yrr, revolt against their human polluters. The revolution takes the form of whales sinking ships, crabs poisoning water supplies, and other surprising twists. Such a scenario is the perfect mirror to what modern human civilization is inflicting on the oceans as fishing has become so brutally efficient as to be revoltingly inefficient. Bycatch, or unwanted species throw back dead or dying make up at least a quarter of the global catch, an estimated 88 billion pounds of life (this according to a 2006 Mother Jones article titled “The Fate of the Ocean”) including some 40,000 sea turtles and hundreds of thousands of seabirds.
The March 2008 issue of Scientific American includes an article titled “Bluefin in Peril” that cautiously endorses commercial domestication of at least most of the ocean as the only way to save the bluefin tuna, and many other species from over-fishing. While such very imperfect methods may ultimately prove to be unavoidable, what would be the grandest solution to save the oceans will be an energized international framework, including provisions such as the banning of trawling.
For the bluefin such a framework has long existed. In 1969, just as the boom was picking up steam, seventeen countries bordering the Atlantic or Mediterranean, including countries with fleets operating there, created the International Commission for the Conservation of the Atlantic Tuna (ICCAT). Its mandate was to protect thirty tuna and other, similar, species with regulations such as minimum size limits and quotas allotted to countries (the European Union being its own signatory). However the commission has largely failed in its mandate, mainly because of piracy (where the Libyan government is directly complicit) and lack of international willpower to enforce treaties, particularly in governments surrounding the Mediterranean. A major loop-hole also exists that allows the minimum size requirement to be bypassed simply by catching a smaller bluefin and fattening it up in captivity to reach an acceptable size before killing it, therefore dangerously killing tuna before they can breed and affecting future generations.
An even grander hope is that such international action will be enforced by an educated public. Ultimately it is consumer demand that drives industries and has the greatest potential to spur reform. In the case of the ocean such a people’s movement would save both important and beautiful species as well as the industries that have spawned around them. At the end of the day this is truly the only hope.
In The Sushi Economy Sasha Issenberg ends his introduction by writing “What goes into the making of sushi has to really be a narrative about the development of twentieth century global capitalism.” Issenberg is more correct than he probably cares to realize, all the more reason for the narrative to finally change.