The decimation of giant bluefin is emblematic of everything wrong with global fisheries today: the vastly increased killing power of new fishing technology, the shadowy network of international companies making huge profits from the trade, negligent fisheries management and enforcement, and consumers' indifference to the fate of the fish they choose to buy.
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.
Popular species such as cod have plummeted from the North Sea to Georges Bank off New England. In the Mediterranean, 12 species of shark are commercially extinct, and swordfish there, which should grow as thick as a telephone pole, are now caught as juveniles and eaten when no bigger than a baseball bat. With many Northern Hemisphere waters fished out, commercial fleets have steamed south, overexploiting once teeming fishing grounds. Off West Africa, poorly regulated fleets, both local and foreign, are wiping out fish stocks from the productive waters of the continental shelf, depriving subsistence fishermen in Senegal, Ghana, Guinea, Angola, and other countries of their families' main source of protein. In Asia, so many boats have fished the waters of the Gulf of Thailand and the Java Sea that stocks are close to exhaustion. "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 life that remains in the sea."
"Cruel" may seem a harsh indictment of the age-old profession of fishing—and certainly does not apply to all who practice the trade—but how else to portray the world's shark fishermen, who kill tens of millions of sharks a year, large numbers finned alive for shark-fin soup and allowed to sink to the bottom to die? How else to characterize the incalculable number of fish and other sea creatures scooped up in nets, allowed to suffocate, and dumped overboard as useless bycatch? Or the longline fisheries, whose miles and miles of baited hooks attract—and drown—creatures such as the loggerhead turtle and wandering albatross?
Do we countenance such loss because fish live in a world we cannot see? Would it be different if, as one conservationist fantasized, the fish wailed as we lifted them out of the water in nets? If the giant bluefin lived on land, its size, speed, and epic migrations would ensure its legendary status, with tourists flocking to photograph it in national parks. But because it lives in the sea, its majesty—comparable to that of a lion—lies largely beyond comprehension.
One of the ironies—and tragedies—of the Mediterranean bluefin hunt is that the very act of procreation now puts the fish at the mercy of the fleets. In the spring and summer, as the water warms, schools of bluefin rise to the surface to spawn. Slashing through the sea, planing on their sides and exposing their massive silver-colored flanks, the large females each expel tens of millions of eggs, and the males emit clouds of milt. From the air, on a calm day, this turmoil of reproduction—the flashing of fish, the disturbed sea, the slick of spawn and sperm—can be seen from miles away by spotter planes, which call in the fleet.