The author of The Book of Sharks, Imagining Atlantis, and Encyclopedia of the Sea turns his gaze to the tuna--one of the biggest, fastest, and most highly evolved marine animals and the source of some of the world's most popular delicacies--now hovering on the brink of extinction. In recent years, the tuna's place on our palates has come under scrutiny, as we grow increasingly aware of our own health and the health of our planet. Here, Ellis explains how a fish that was once able to thrive has become a commodity, in a book that shows how the natural world and the global economy converge on our plates.
The longest migrator of any fish species, an Atlantic northern bluefin can travel from New England to the Mediterranean, then turn around and swim back; in the Pacific, the northern bluefin can make a round-trip journey from California to Japan. The fish can weigh in at 1,500 pounds and, in an instant, pick up speed to fifty-five miles per hour.
But today the fish is the target of the insatiable sushi market, particularly in Japan, where an individual piece can go for seventy-five dollars. Ellis introduces us to the high-stakes world of "tuna ranches," where large schools of half-grown tuna are caught in floating corrals and held in pens before being fattened, killed, gutted, frozen, and shipped to the Asian market. Once on the brink of bankruptcy, the world's tuna ranches--in Australia, Spain, France, Italy, Greece, Turkey, and North Africa--have become multimillion-dollar enterprises. Experts warn that the fish are dying out and environmentalists lobby for stricter controls, while entire coastal ecosystems are under threat. The extinction of the tuna would mean not only the end of several species but dangerous consequences for the earth as a whole.
In the tradition of Mark Kurlansky's Cod, John Cole's Striper, John Hersey's Blues--and of course, Ellis's own Great White Shark--this book will forever change the way we think about fish and fishing.
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July 14, 2008
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Excerpt from Tuna by Richard Ellis
SPORT FISHING FOR TUNA
Around 1496, Wynkyn de Worde, one of the first printers in England,printed the Treatyse of Fysshynge with an Angle, which was basedon even earlier treatises on "fysshynge." Izaak Walton published The Compleat Angler in 1653, inspiring a vast number of his fellow Englishmen to take up fishing. But no matter how much they enjoyed the sport, they still ate the fish they caught. Since Walton's day, however, the art and science of fishing often took precedence over the number and size of the catch that the fisherman brought home to feed his family. Thus did salmon and trout fishing-particularly in England-develop into pastimes suitable for gentlemen, along the lines of fox hunting or bird shooting. The conquest of a fox or a pheasant might require a certain degree of skill and courage, but for the most part, what were needed were a few dogs, a proper kit, and privacy and space enough to engage in these patrician pursuits.
Another field usually restricted to the aristocracy or to those officers posted to exotic locales was big-game hunting. Much of this sort of thing was dedicated to the acquisition of a large set of horns or antlers to display over the mantelpiece, but hunters with powerful weapons also took aim at tigers and leopards in India; lions, leopards, rhinos, and buffalos in Africa; and almost everything larger than a woodchuck in North America: bison, bighorn sheep, moose, elk, every kind of deer, and of course the predators, such as bears, wolves, and mountain lions. If there was ever any justification offered for the slaughter of these animals, it was a sort of hunters' "manifest destiny": the privileged classes were entitled to shoot everything with legs or wings, and if the targets happened to be predators, so much the better, the hunters were making the world safer for farmers and their livestock. If and when the predators preyed upon people-think of "man-eating" lions and tigers-well, it was clearly the duty of the hunters to rid the world of these malicious carnivores.
No fish ever threatened a farmer's livestock, and with the possible exception of some of the larger shark species, none threatened people either. But because some fish were so large and so powerful that their capture required more than a little skill (and often a lot of expensive equipment, sometimes including a big boat), the idea of big-game fishing was born. In his discussion of the origins of the very exclusive Cat Cay fishing resort in the Bahamas, Philip Wylie explained, "the day came when men who had once exulted over a three-pound trout taken on a rod and reel began to think three hundred pounds was no great shakes for hefty relatives of the same species of tackle. This new sport was dashing, daring-and expensive. And for those who could afford it, there was a need of a base suitable to the tastes of the elite." The idea of catching fish that you had no intention of eating-fishing for sport, in other words-is a very recent development, and probably to some extent based on the great billfishes. They certainly are edible, but fight takes precedence over fillets, and the idea of eating a thousand pounds of fish might be a little daunting to any but the most intrepid (or hungry) angler.
Obviously, "big-game fishes" had to be big-many of them could exceed a thousand pounds-but they also had to be "game," that is, prepared to put up a valiant fight to escape capture. This conspicuous reluctance to be reeled in often took the form of spectacular, repeated leaps out of the water, an exaggerated, large-scale version of the fight a hooked salmon might put up. The pursuit of large fishes on an adversarial basis began in the early decades of the twentieth century, where the goal was the conquest of an opponent worthy of an intrepid and well-outfitted fisherman. (The idea of fishing for food was eschewed; some of these big-game fishes were far too large to be eaten by anything but a small village.) The big-game fishes include the larger tunas-bluefin and yellowfin-and all the billfishes: the marlins, sailfish, spearfish, and of course the broadbill swordfish.
In Van Campen Heilner's 1953 history of saltwater fishing, welearn:
The first sportsman to test the quality of Nova Scotia tuna... was Thomas Pattilo, a schoolmaster, who tackled them from a dory in Liverpool harbor in 1871. He took thirty-two fathoms of ordinary codline, wound it on a swivel reel of some sort, fashioned a hook of steel "three-eighths inches thick, eight inches long, with a three inch shank," and sallied forth in an ordinary fisherman's dory with a single companion.