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Published: April 2007

Global Fisheries Crisis

Shark Net

Still Waters, The Global Fish Crisis

The Mediterranean may lose its wild bluefin tuna. High-tech harvesting and wasteful management have brought world fish stocks to dangerous lows. This story explores the fish crisis—as well as the hope for a new relationship between man and the sea.

By Fen Montaigne
Photograph by Brian Skerry

No more magnificent fish swims the world's oceans than the giant bluefin tuna, which can grow to 12 feet (4 meters) in length, weigh 1,500 pounds (680 kilograms), and live for 30 years. Despite its size, it is an exquisitely hydrodynamic creation, able to streak through water at 25 miles (40 kilometers) an hour and dive deeper than half a mile (0.8 kilometers). Unlike most other fish, it has a warm-blooded circulatory system that enables it to roam from the Arctic to the tropics. 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 the 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.

"My big fear is that it may be too late," said Sergi Tudela, a Spanish marine biologist with the World Wildlife Fund, which has led the struggle to rein in the bluefin fishery. "I have a very graphic image in my mind. It is of the migration of so many buffalo in the American West in the early 19th century. It was the same with bluefin tuna in the Mediterranean, a migration of a massive number of animals. And now we are witnessing the same phenomenon happening to giant bluefin tuna that we saw happen with America's buffalo. We are witnessing this, right now, right before our eyes."

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