It wasn't always that way. [At the] turn of the last century, [the bluefin] was considered inedible because of its bright-red meat. It was called horse mackerel. Open a can of it and it would look just like hamburger and that's not the tuna sandwich you want...
People tend to think the Japanese have been eating tuna [sushi] forever but Japanese sushi and sashimi [has existed] only since the 1960s when refrigeration was introduced. Prior to that fish had to be smoked or pickled.
Then people in Japan overdeveloped a lust for bluefin tuna, which has reached its epitome here in New York City where there's a restaurant called Masa [in which] a prix fixe lunch or dinner is $600. For $600, you get some fancy appetizers and a lump of raw fish—maguro, or bluefin tuna.
What is driving the loss of these fish?
The major threat [to] the bluefin is posed by the Japanese, and people attempting to fill the Japanese need have done some rather dramatic things... In the Mediterranean, [fishers] caught hundreds of thousands of half-grown tuna, put them in pens and fed them until they were market size. Then they killed them, froze them and shipped them to Japan. An enormous fortune was made in farming bluefin tuna.
But they are different from salmon, you cannot raise them from eggs. [The] only way to raise tuna [is] this kind of feedlot technology. But when you kill half-grown tuna in significant numbers you are cutting off the breeding cycle... Every single country on or in the Mediterranean, which is one of two breeding grounds for the Atlantic bluefin tuna, does this because there is so much money to be made in it. The largest industry in Croatia, for example, is tuna farming.
Is it really just the Japanese driving this destruction?
It seems counterintuitive that all those people in the Mediterranean catching all those tuna could sell them all to a country the size of Japan. But then one goes there and visits Tsukiji fish market; 52 acres of fish market. Every day at five in the morning it opens for buyers to purchase the fish that [have] been brought there overnight from everywhere. You are looking at thousands of bluefin tuna that are six feet long and all are auctioned off and gone by 10 in the morning. It happens every singly day of the year. So the bluefin tuna is an endangered species.
What can be done to save the bluefin?
There seems to be, on the horizon, a modest way of solving [the food] part of the problem. Even if they run out of Mediterranean tuna, if they succeed in breeding them from eggs, this could represent some element in the solution [to] the problem. It doesn't protect the tuna but it could take the pressure off the wild fish. If the world were able to see the tuna in the same way as we see cattle, pigs, sheep and chickens: as domestic animals raised to be eaten...
In February of this year, I got an email from the people at Clean Seas Limited. They have succeeded in spawning southern bluefin tuna... It will be a couple of years before they know whether this has really succeeded. They have to figure out what they are going to do with a million six-inch-long tuna but it will change everything about tuna if it succeeds.
But tuna consume 20 kilograms (44 pounds) of smaller fish for every kilogram (two pounds) of their own weight. Is tuna farming going to end up exacerbating the overfishing of other species?
What they are feeding them is anchovies and sardines: foot-long fish. But there are studies being conducted in Japan, Europe and Australia to figure out how to feed them something that isn't foot-long fish. Because what will happen to the foot-long fish if the tuna farming industry increases exponentially? Then you are going to run out of these little fish...