By David L. Brown
How can we tell when a species is endangered? One clue is when people are willing to pay an arm and a leg to eat the unfortunate few remaining members.
Recently a 511 lb. northern bluefin tuna, one of the most sought-after fish in the world for sushi, was sold at Tokyo’s Tuskiji fish market for $175,000. By that afternoon, customers at Kyubey, a nearby star-rated restaurant, were chowing down on the tuna’s fatty belly meat. The story was reported by Scientific American on-line, here.
The idea that a single fish could be worth $342.50 a pound is astonishing, especially considering the number of people on Earth who go to bed hungry each night. It is a fact that many struggle to survive on as little as a dollar a day. For one of those unfortunate individuals, (should they become immortal) $175,000 could equal their income for 480 years, or about 20 generations. Or, conversely, it would be equal to the income of 480 impoverished people for an entire year. Just one fish.
There is growing evidence that the norhern bluefin may be in danger of extinction. The SciAm article reported on a move toward banning harvest of the increasingly rare fish, one of the top predator species of the ocean. Only the northern bluefin would be affected, not the Pacific and southern varieties—but it appears the northern bluefin is the one most loved by diners, especially in Japan which imports 80 percent of the bluefin catch in the Atlantic and Mediterranean.
Markets and the effects of greed and avarice are more powerful than nature, common sense, and human self-preservation all added together, at least for the time being, so with demand for bluefin sushi so high that it can support stratospheric prices it seems likely that protecting the fish will be difficult or impossible. One problem is that even experts have difficulty telling the difference between the three varieties of bluefin (although sushi eaters apparently can, or at least believe they can).
Listing as an endangered species does not necessarily have much effect. The demand for rhinoceros horns for dagger handles among Arabs and potions among aging Chinese and Vietnamese has forced many rhino species to the very edge of extinction. Modern-day poachers hunt rhinos with AK-47s and sometimes from helicopters, quickly removing the horns with chainsaws and leaving the bodies to rot. The market for rhino horns has continued to thrive even though several major rhino varieties have been placed on the world endangered species list (CITES) and even China banned the sale of rhino horn 17 years ago.
In a similar way, it seems likely that greedy fishers, fish mongers, and restaurant operators will find ways around a bluefin tuna ban. After all, the mindset of our present world economy seems to be that money is the root of everything that is good and the environment be damned. The plundering of nature will continue apace as long as humans have a yen (or dollar, euro or pound) for rare delicacies from the sea.