No more magnificent fish swims the world’s oceans than the giant bluefin tuna, which can grow to 12 feet (3.7 meters) in length, weigh 1,500 pounds (680 kilograms), and live for 30 years. Once, giant bluefin migrated by the millions throughout the Atlantic Basin and the Mediterranean Sea, their flesh so important to the people of the ancient world that they painted the tuna’s likeness on cave walls and minted its image on coins.
The giant, or Atlantic, bluefin possesses another extraordinary attribute, one that may prove to be its undoing: Its buttery belly meat, liberally layered with fat, is considered the finest sushi in the world. Over the past decade, a high-tech armada, often guided by spotter planes, has pursued giant bluefin from one end of the Mediterranean to the other, annually netting tens of thousands of fish, many of them illegally. The bluefin are fattened offshore in sea cages before being shot and butchered for the sushi and steak markets in Japan, America, and Europe. So many giant bluefin have been hauled out of the Mediterranean that the population is in danger of collapse. Meanwhile, European and North African officials have done little to stop the slaughter.
The world’s oceans are a shadow of what they once were. With a few notable exceptions, such as well-managed fisheries in Alaska, Iceland, and New Zealand, the number of fish swimming the seas is a fraction of what it was a century ago. Marine biologists differ on the extent of the decline. Some argue that stocks of many large oceangoing fish have fallen by 80 to 90 percent, while others say the declines have been less steep. But all agree that, in most places, too many boats are chasing too few fish.
“There is no way for the fish to escape—everything is high-tech,” Domaniewicz said. Speaking of the French purse-seine fishermen he worked for in Libya, he said, “I am an environmentalist, and I couldn’t stand the way they fished with no care for the quotas. I saw these people taking everything. They catch whatever they want. They just see money on the sea. They don’t think what will be there in ten years.”
”The oceans are suffering from a lot of things, but the one that overshadows everything else is fishing,” said Joshua S. Reichert of the Pew Charitable Trusts. “And unless we get a handle on the extraction of fish and marine resources, we will lose much of the list that remains in the seas.