The Curse of Being the Greatest

We ate the bluefin tuna nearly to extinction. We can stop now.

Text Mark Mann
Illustrations Thaïla Khampo

The fishermen of North Lake, Prince Edward Island, have been noticing something strange in the last few years. Bluefin tuna have started swimming right up to their boats and have been practically eating out of their hands.

Admittedly, this is a lucky break for the town known as “the Bluefin Capital of the World,” since the fish’s newfound friendliness makes it much easier to put on the line for eager tourists, who travel from all over the world for the opportunity to hook the legendary beast. But it’s also a bit creepy. The bluefin always used to flee the boats. Now they hang around like stray dogs, begging for a meal.

To the average North American, tuna is the familiar pink fish that stacks so nicely in cans and mixes so creamily with mayonnaise. To discerning sushi lovers, bluefin tuna is the most expensive sashimi on the menu, prized for its buttery flesh, which can be as red and marbled as a slice of beef. But rod-and-reel fishermen like those in North Lake get to meet the real bluefin: a powerful apex predator that can weigh over a thousand pounds and reach speeds of up to 100 km/h [62 mph] in bursts. The bluefin can out-accelerate a sports car and out-swim a torpedo; when caught on a line, it fights so hard that it can literally boil its own meat. Snagging one of these monsters is as close to catching a tiger by the tail as you’re likely to experience in this life.

PEI native John Hopkins always wanted to land a massive bluefin. “The dream of every fisherman is to battle the biggest and most powerful fish,” he explained to me recently over the phone. So seven years ago, Hopkins set out to make a documentary about the bluefin and the North Lake fishermen who catch them. But before he ever had the chance to put one on a line, Hopkins went diving among the bluefin that visit the Canadian maritimes every summer, and the experience completely changed his perspective.

Swimming up close with the bluefin, Hopkins realized that they were more than just the “pinnacle of fish evolution,” as some marine biologists have described them, and also more than “the ruler of Valhalla for all fishermen,” as Ernest Hemingway put it. “They were playful,” Hopkins recalls. “Kind of like a husky. They want to get a treat, but they don’t want to be your best friend either.” Later, when he finally did have the chance to hold a rod with a bluefin struggling on the hook, Hopkins found that the thrill was nearly gone. “It was clear to me that the fish on the end of the line was really unhappy and angry,” he says. “Being out there in the water, observing these fish and getting to know them better, you build more empathy for them.”

Hopkins’ documentary, Bluefin, shows the North Lake community growing unexpectedly intimate with a fish that has always been their traditional foe. “I like to see the flash when he comes up and you can see the fear in his eye,” observes one angler in a tone shaded with misgiving. These fishermen have been hunting bluefin in small boats out on the open water for generations, and they’re proud of the work they do. But their habitual attitudes are shifting with the changing behaviour of the fish, whose strange approachability is making them feel uneasy.

North Lake has long had a front-row seat to the bluefin’s chaotic and devastating entrance onto the world stage, when sushi became a global culinary phenomenon. Beginning in the late 1960s, sport fishermen worldwide discovered North Lake as one of the best places to catch Atlantic bluefin. They descended on the town in droves, hoping to land a giant and join the “thousand-pound club.” Although the local fishermen had regarded bluefin as a nuisance that ate their catch and fouled their nets, this influx of wealthy outdoorsmen reversed those sentiments, and the bluefin quickly became the centerpiece of the community’s identity. They held tuna pageants and celebrated their “Tuna Queens,” and when one of their fishermen hauled in a mammoth, they gathered on the docks to see it hoisted triumphantly into the air. But then, once the pictures had been snapped, they dug a hole somewhere and dumped in their prize to rot. After all, who would eat such a disgusting fish?

To a North Lake fisherman, bluefin was a catch to be celebrated, but certainly not a taste to be savoured. At best, it could be sold for cat food, though for that they would only earn $5 per whole tuna, so it was hardly worth the effort to ship. As Sasha Issenberg describes in his 2007 book The Sushi Economy, the locals were baffled, then, when a pair of shipping agents from Japan Airlines, Akira Okazaki and Yoki Kumahara, arrived in the town in October of 1971 and explained that they wanted to fly the bluefin back to Japan. Few in North Lake could imagine bluefin appearing in fancy restaurants, let alone travelling by air to get there. Most of the fishermen were initially skeptical, but as the price tag per fish climbed into the thousands of dollars, they soon got in on the action.

Image, gracieuseté de John Hopkins, Office national du film du Canada, North Lake

Even in Japan, bluefin had for centuries been considered a poor man’s snack. Because of its fattiness, tuna decayed quickly and therefore didn’t travel well, so only fishermen could eat it fresh; the upper classes scorned this sailor’s grub. Sushi wasn’t anything special either. It began as a way to preserve fish—packed into salted rice, the fish would pickle and preserve over a period of many months—and evolved into street food, to be gulped down at sidewalk stands after work or on the way home from the bar. Bluefin hardly made the menu.

But the postwar economic boom pushed sushi indoors, where it became a luxury meal. From the Americans, the Japanese picked up a taste for fattier foods, like steak, and this translated into a newfound appreciation for the oily tuna, particularly the belly meat. Thanks to the invention of refrigeration, bluefin could now be served fresh far from shore, where Japan’s corporate elite paid lavishly for a few high-quality mouthfuls, and could also be imported from farther and farther afield. So when Japan Airlines started to look for high-value products to fill the cargo holds of its commercial planes on their return trips from shipping electronics to North America, it was only natural that Okazaki and Kumahara should end up in North Lake, with its plentiful supply of the world’s mightiest, and now most sought after, fish.

North Lake became ground zero for a new era of alimentary globalization, whereby a fish could be pulled in from the ocean coast of PEI and arrive on a dinner plate in Japan less than two days later. And while bluefin funnelled toward Japan, the taste for sushi reverberated back out to the rest of the world. Los Angeles was the first North American city to fully adopt sushi (or “rice sandwiches,” as they were sometimes called) as a diet food for the rich and famous in the 1960s. Though it took several decades for mainstream America to overcome the hurdle of raw fish, by the late 1980s, sushi had begun a swift transition from elite repast to the perfect light lunch for diet-conscious North Americans.

But sushi’s success was the bluefin’s undoing: the bluefin population was utterly devastated by its newfound popularity. While North Lake fishermen battled the fish one at a time with rod and reel, commercial fishing vessels called “purse seiners” dropped enormous nets over migrating schools of bluefin, or dragged longlines that stretched as far as 30 miles [48 km] behind the boat, strung with thousands of hooks. By 2013, industrialized efficiency paired with a global appetite had wiped out as much as 96 per cent of Pacific bluefin, with other bluefin populations suffering similar declines. Despite modest attempts at regulation, the situation has not since improved.

Is bluefin really that tasty? Yummy unto extinction? Ned Bell, the executive chef at Ocean Wise, based at the Vancouver Aquarium, thinks our love of bluefin has more to do with compulsion than any intrinsic quality in the fish.

Bell is a sustainable seafood advocate, and he’s been organizing screenings of Hopkins’ documentary in high-end restaurants across Canada, such as Toronto’s Momofuku.“We need to open our bellies to new things,” he says. Bell encourages people to try his “52 and 12” plan: eat sustainable seafood once a week, and at least once a month try something from the ocean you’ve never had before. (Together with co-author Valerie Howes, Bell’s recent cookbook, Lure, proposes many recipes for sustainable seafood.) “To me that’s gonna get us expanding our palates and our horizons to the point where we know where our food is coming from.”

Bell acknowledges that fisheries are constantly in flux as seafood stocks go up and down, so it can be challenging to stay up to date on what’s sustainable. Case in point: the mystery at the heart of Hopkins’ documentary. The reason North Lake fishermen are encountering such amiable bluefin is that the herring have been overfished. “It’s made the fish friendly because we’re taking their food away,” says Hopkins. The bluefin are simply hungry and desperate, and it shows. “A lot of these tuna have big heads and skinny bodies,” says Hopkins.

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t eat herring, just not the Atlantic herring from Canada’s Bay of Fundy area. Ocean Wise lists that fishery as “not recommended.” There are plenty of recommended herring fisheries, however, and it’s easy enough to check. Seafood Watch, David Suzuki’s SeaChoice program, and the Marine Stewardship Council all have tools to help make sustainable choices. The tradition of destructive industrial fishing can make all seafood seem suspect, but with a smartphone and a bit of creativity, it’s easy to eat fish nonapocalyptically. The story of the bluefin demonstrates that culinary choices guide fisheries, not the other way around. Devour the ocean’s bounty, not its apex predators. Eaters have the power, and it tastes good.

This article was published in BESIDE Magazine, Issue 04

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