Further Reading: “Death of a Giant”

Further Reading is a new blog feature in which we take a deeper look at topics from stories featured on Longform. It is produced along withPitt Writers.

Last week, Longform picked a 1994 Harper’s piece by John Seabrook about giant bluefin tuna fishermen who answer the lucrative demands of Japanese sushi markets rather than the conservationists’ concerns about overfishing. Following one giant tuna from a coastal Maine harpoon hunt to its butchering after auction in Japan, Seabrook explores the reasoning behind the dismissal of reports that the fish’s numbers are dangerously dwindling:

I ask Brooks and Steve why they want to catch tuna so much. Steve says, “I love these fish. But I love to catch them. God I love to catch them. And I know you need some kind of catch limits because I’d catch all of them if I could.” He thinks for a minute. “Most guys I know don’t do this for the money. They tell you they do it for the money, but it’s not true.”

Brooks says, “The money is just a way of keeping score. It’s hard to explain what it is. It’s weird. A lot of things come together when you stick a fish.”

Much has happened in the world’s oceans, fishing ports and conservation movements in the 18 years since Seabrook’s article was published. Here’s further reading on the current status of bluefin tuna, the changing fishing industry, sushi’s role in overfishing and how to keep eating (certain) oceanic fare without feeling bad.


The Art of Fishing: Many Generations Pursue Gulf Tuna
April Gilmore • Landings • July 20, 2012

Good news first: the Weiner family—the men Seabrook observed harpooning for tuna back in ‘94—is still making their living on the ocean. Chris Weiner, the comic book-reading 12-year old depicted in Harper’s is now 30 and working alongside his dad and younger brother. Now here’s the bad news: the Weiners’ fellow tuna fishermen report a significant decline in both fish caught and money to be made.

The last few years I don’t think I’ve gone more than eight or ten times during the summer due to the fact that there are a lot of small fish around,” Eric said. “It’s changed drastically even from five or six years ago, let alone compared to when they were younger,” he said referring to his past generations. “In the 90’s the price was good. You’d have up to fifteen buyers down on the wharf every night. Now I think they say there are only five buyers for the whole east coast.

Maine Fishermen Relieved by Bluefin Ruling

Clarke Canfield • Bangor Daily News • May 2011

Two decades ago, Seabrook’s sources in the tuna industry questioned reports that the fish’s population was diminishing. The debate continues today, heightened especially in 2011 when to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) worked to determine whether to protect bluefin tuna under the Endangered Species Act. Ultimately, tuna was not labeled as endangered, but rather a “species of concern”—much to the comfort of Maine’s fishing industry and the concern of conservationists.

“We view it as ludicrous the suggestion that fishermen could fish a highly migratory species like bluefin to extinction and have always thought (the Endangered Species Act) was an inappropriate tool,” he said.

Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, said not listing the species as endangered validates the work of fishermen who are trying to conserve the fish.

“This is great news for Maine fishermen and our coastal communities,” Pingree said. “Not listing tuna as endangered will be a huge relief to the many families in Maine who depend on it for their living.”

Tuna’s End
Paul Greenberg • New York Times Magazine  • Jun 2010

For some, there is no question that bluefin tuna are in danger. Beginning with a Greenpeace mission to sabotage a major tuna haul off the coast of Malta, Greenberg offers an updated, globalized evaluation of tuna’s cultural, economic and environmental significance. Ultimately he asks: Will we deplete (or have we already depleted) the worldwide bluefin tuna population beyond repair?

All fish change color when they die. But with tuna the death shift feels more profound. Fresh from the water, their backs pulsing neon blue, their bellies gleaming silver-pink iridescence, they seem like the ocean itself.

And in a way they are, which explains the second reason bluefin have come to possess such totemic power. For bluefin tuna and all species of tuna are the living representation of the very limits of the ocean. Their global decline is a warning that we just might destroy our last wild food.

If You Knew Sushi
Nick Tosches • Vanity Fair • June 2007 

A stroll through Tokyo’s Tsukiji, the world’s largest seafood market, and the mecca of the global sushi trade provides a glimpse into the individuals, businesses and country that primarily fuel the tuna fishing industry.

Occasionally tuna mania overtakes an auction. Hiroyasu Ito, the president of Chuo Gyorui, the biggest of the wholesalers and auction houses in terms of sales volume, tells me of a January morning in 1999 when an Oma tuna came to auction through his firm. It appeared to be the perfect tuna, a vision of true kata.

Ito-san remembers that the auction started modestly at ¥9,000, or about 75 bucks, per kilo. “And then ¥10,000, ¥20,000, ¥30,000, and ¥40,000. And then three men wanted that tuna very badly.” The bidding among them escalated furiously. “At ¥50,000 per kilo, one of them gave up.” The remaining two continued to compete. “Ninety thousand, and then ¥100,000 was the last.”

The tuna weighed 200 kilos. At ¥100,000 per kilo, the possessed bidder had paid ¥20 million—the equivalent of more than $170,000—for a fish whose parceled meat could never recoup that amount.

The Scales Fall
Elizabeth Kolbert • New Yorker • August 2010 

In outlining the history and possible future of humans’ relationship with the Atlantic bluefin tuna, Kolbert notes a number of related books recently published and the emergence of “a new kind of fish story—a lament not for the one that got away but for the countless others that didn’t.”

The new fish stories can be read as parables about technology. What was, once upon a time, a stable relationship between predator and prey was transformed by new “machinery” into a deadly mismatch. This reading isn’t so much wrong as misleading. To paraphrase the old N.R.A. favorite, FADs [fish aggregating devices] don’t kill fish, people do.

In an effort to figure out what ocean life was like before the modern era, marine scientists have, in the past few decades, cored through seafloor sediments, measured the size of fish bones tossed out at ancient banquets, and combed through the logs of early explorers. As Callum Roberts reports in “The Unnatural History of the Sea” (2007), the work suggests that humans have been wreaking havoc in the oceans for centuries.

The Gloucester Fish War
Brendan Borell • Businessweek • November 2011

Bluefin tuna isn’t the only declining ocean species stuck in the middle of a battle between government agencies and fishermen. In Massachusetts, cod overfishing has become a contentious issue that is changing and challenging both the NOAA and the American fishing industry.

They were looking for the auction’s founder and chief executive officer, a mustached man named Larry Ciulla. When they found him in an office off the auction floor, they officially informed him of their search warrant. They suspected he had illegally bought and sold cod, one of the world’s most valuable, most threatened, and closely watched stocks of fish. The agents were there to seize the auction’s last three years of records and had rented a U-Haul for the mountain of evidence they intended to truck away. In raiding the Gloucester Seafood Display Auction, the largest fish dealer on the Gulf of Maine, which extends from Cape Cod up to the southern tip of Nova Scotia, they hoped to send a message to the fishermen of Gloucester: Overfishing doesn’t pay.

The Impact of Seafood
National Geographic • 2012 

Are you a fish lover and a fish eater? Don’t dismay. Here’s an interactive info box detailing the larger environmental impact of consuming certain seafood and tips on how to keep eating fish and mollusks guilt-free.

Today’s health, safety, and sustainability considerations can make it complicated to determine the best seafood choices for you and your family. This interactive guide compiles all the information you need to continue to eat healthfully while lowering your seafood footprint. Use it to find out where your favorite fish ranks in sustainability, mercury level, and omega-3 content, as well its place in the food chain—and why it matters.

—Laura Clark


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