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Bye, bye bluefin

Tuna species faces extinction now that a ban has been rejected

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If you ever have a strange compulsion to consume a Bengal tiger steak or chow down on a mountain gorilla burger, I’m pleased to say you can’t obtain these dubious delicacies in Winnipeg.

But if you scan the list of daily specials at some of the city’s more upscale sushi restaurants, you will occasionally find another endangered animal from the top of the food chain: the bluefin tuna, a magnificent ocean predator whose speed and agility is outmatched only by its yumminess.

The bluefin is an amazing feat of evolution. Graced with a muscular, rhomboidal body that looks like it was laser-fashioned in a wind tunnel, this massive fish can accelerate faster and manoeuvre better than almost any other creature in the ocean, author Richard Ellis writes in his exhaustively researched Tuna: A Love Story.

Unlike the vast majority of fish, the bluefin is effectively warm-blooded, like a mammal, thanks to a circulatory system that functions like a network of heat exchangers. It also has an unusual amount of hemoglobin in its blood, enabling it to quickly convert oxygen into power.

But this amazing physiology has not prevented the bluefin tuna from being caught by humans far faster than it can reproduce — or even reproduce at all, thanks to the ecologically idiotic practice of catching young tuna and fattening them up in ocean pens until it’s time to kill them.

Go back 100 years and the bluefin was just a sport fish. Smaller tuna species such as albacore were easier to catch and preserve in canneries. But after the advent of refrigeration, the Japanese developed a taste for raw bluefin flesh, the hon-maguro you’ll sometimes find on local sushi menus. And that taste has become so ravenous, most of the world’s bluefin tuna subpopulations have been reduced to a tiny fraction of their former numbers.

The Atlantic or northern bluefin, which ranges from Prince Edward Island into the Mediterranean, is considered critically endangered, which is one step away from extirpation.

This is an environmental disaster, and not just because the bluefin is so impressive. The removal of any top-of-the-line predator from an ocean ecosystem has ripple effects across the underwater food chain.

And the tuna kept in open-ocean "farms" are fattened up with massive quantities of other edible food fish that would otherwise serve as subsistence protein for people in developing countries.
The magnitude of the disaster is very well understood, as marine biologists have warned the world for decades about the potential extinction of bluefin tuna. But as the fish becomes more scarce, it becomes more valuable in Japan, where a singe slice of bluefin sashimi can sell for $20 and an entire fish will garner more than $100,000 at Tokyo’s Tsukiji fish market.

As a result, worldwide fishing fleets are actually trying harder than ever to catch fewer and fewer existing bluefin. The profits are simply too immense for fishing interests to resist.

While this might sound short-sighted, efforts to outright ban the bluefin catch in the Atlantic and Mediterranean and allow the tuna stocks to recover have been resisted by ICCAT, the fishing-industry body formally known as the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tuna — but dismissed as the International Conspiracy to Catch All Tuna by genuine conservationists.

Last week, the bluefin tuna had a chance to recover when CITES — the United Nations’ Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species — considered a complete ban on Atlantic bluefin fishing.

Thanks to lobbying from Japan, which warned it wouldn’t respect a ban regardless of the vote, the participating nations at the convention voted 68-20 to allow ICCAT to continue doing the job of doing nothing to prevent the extinction of the bluefin.

It should be an embarrassment to all Canadians that our country supported Japan and voted against a bluefin ban. Fisheries Minister Gail Shea told CBC news the bluefin should merely be "fished responsibly."

That simply isn’t possible, even if P.E.I. fishers only take a few every year. The species is simply too scarce overall.

Is there a responsible way to wander into the jungles of India and shoot the few remaining Bengal tigers? Is there a responsible way to venture into Burundi’s mountains and kill the last gorillas? Bluefin tuna may not have fur, but they are just as endangered and ecologically important.

If you see it on a Winnipeg sushi menu, tell the waiter and the owner you are not impressed. Or simply try to order tiger steak or gorilla burgers instead.

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About Bartley Kives

Bartley Kives wants you to know his last name rhymes with Beavis, as in Beavis and Butthead. He aspires to match the wit, grace and intelligence of the 1990s cartoon series.

Bartley joined the Free Press in 1998 as a music critic. He spent the ensuing 7.5 years interviewing the likes of Neil Young and David Bowie and trying to stay out of trouble at the Winnipeg Folk Festival before deciding it was far more exciting to sit through zoning-variance appeals at city hall.

In 2006, Bartley followed Winnipeg Mayor Sam Katz from the music business into civic politics. He spent seven years covering city hall from a windowless basement office.

He is now reporter-at-large for the Free Press and also writes an outdoor-recreation column called Offroad for the Outdoors page.

A canoeist, backpacker and food geek, Bartley is fond of conventional and wilderness travel. He is the author of A Daytripper’s Guide to Manitoba: Exploring Canada’s Undiscovered Province, the only comprehensive travel guidebook for Manitoba – and a Canadian bestseller, to boot. He is also co-author of Stuck In The Middle: Dissenting Views of Winnipeg, a collaboration with photographer Bryan Scott and the winner of the 2014 Carol Shields Winnipeg Book Award.

Bartley’s work has also appeared on CBC Radio and Citytv as well as in publications such as The Guardian, explore magazine and National Geographic Traveler. He sits on the board of PEN Canada, which promotes freedom of expression.

Born in Winnipeg, he has an arts degree from the University of Winnipeg and a master’s degree in journalism from Ottawa’s Carleton University. He is the proud owner of a blender.

On Twitter: @bkives


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