The world sushi trade: An appetite for disaster

The hunting of bluefin tuna is a hi-tech marvel. But global greed is leading to the extinction of one of the world's great fish. By Peter Popham
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It was a barbarous old ritual, with something of the carnal fascination of the running of the bulls in Pamplona. Every spring on the butterfly-shaped island of Favignana, off the north-west coast of Sicily, the local fishermen constructed elaborate offshore traps using miles of steel cable, hundreds of iron anchors and immense nets fashioned into chambers, one leading into another. Slowly the nets filled with the big bluefin tuna that migrate through this channel every year; when enough had been trapped the rais, the boss of the tonnarotti, the tuna men, called for a mattanza, a massacre; the fish were admitted to the final net, the "chamber of death", and the tonnarotti slammed sharpened 10-foot gaffes into their backs and hauled them into the holds of their boats.

It was a barbarous old ritual, with something of the carnal fascination of the running of the bulls in Pamplona. Every spring on the butterfly-shaped island of Favignana, off the north-west coast of Sicily, the local fishermen constructed elaborate offshore traps using miles of steel cable, hundreds of iron anchors and immense nets fashioned into chambers, one leading into another. Slowly the nets filled with the big bluefin tuna that migrate through this channel every year; when enough had been trapped the rais, the boss of the tonnarotti, the tuna men, called for a mattanza, a massacre; the fish were admitted to the final net, the "chamber of death", and the tonnarotti slammed sharpened 10-foot gaffes into their backs and hauled them into the holds of their boats.

Today the ritual survives only as a quaint sideshow for tourists, because no bluefin tuna come this way any more. And that's because elsewhere in the Mediterranean, dotted across the Mare Nostrum from Istanbul to Murcia in south-eastern Spain and from Algeria to Croatia, the modern tonnarotti are leading the bluefin to a far more sophisticated dance of death.

The new mattanza deploys satellite detection, dedicated Cessna aircraft that scour the oceans, high-speed fishing fleets poised to hunt down the tuna schools and capture them in purse seine nets, tug boats pulling circular cages hundreds of meters in diameter, and offshore tuna ranches where the catch is fattened, killed and frozen for the Japanese sushi market. The whole enterprise, now involving a dozen countries around the Mediterranean, is heavily subsidised by the European Union and constitutes an industry worth hundreds of millions of euros every year. Players in the industry range from Dinko Lukin, the Croatian-Australian who invented the ranching concept, to Mafia criminals and shadowy figures close to the Libyan regime.

The whole affair is a miracle of the modern world. One stands aghast and amazed before the complexity and cleverness of it. There's only one thing about it that is not so smart: it is leading, fast, to the extinction of the bluefin tuna. Faster than a speeding bullet, this industry is disappearing up its own fundament.

Conservationists fear that at this rate, unless something improbably wise happens, for all but the richest sushi and sashimi-fanciers, Japanese and otherwise, the melting, succulent flavours of maguro, o-toro and chu-toro sushi, dunked in wasabi-flavoured soy sauce and washed down with warm sake, will soon be no more than a painfully delicious memory. When I first tasted maguro (tuna) sushi in Tokyo in 1977 it was the equivalent of caviar, reserved for special occasions such as wedding banquets or dinner with the boss: presented in large circular lacquered dishes, or even better eaten in snug little sushi bars where the master sliced the fish to one's fancy, and the meal always ended with a pair of toro nigirizushi, the fattiest, pale pink cut of the blue fin's underbelly on its pillow of vinegared rice. It was expensive and luxurious.

The reason it was expensive was that, up until the moment it was caught and killed, the tuna had lived a natural life in the ocean; born in the Mediterranean, migrating through the Straits of Gibraltarto the Atlantic, accelerating through the ocean in search of prey at the speed of a Porsche, hacking back into the Mediterranean to spawn. It was an energetic life, covering thousands of miles, and few of them got fat. Tuna sushi was treated and priced like a rare delicacy because that was what it was.

Fifteen years ago the Japanese economic bubble burst and the thousands of sushi bars that had prospered on salarymen's expense accounts were in trouble: even twice a year was now too often for most to pick up a sushi bar tab. But the Japanese had not lost their taste for what was effectively the national dish, and technological innovation came to the rescue. Ever more efficient trawling techniques culminated in the purse seine system. Fast fishing boats - six Italian ones are on standby in the harbour of Valletta, Malta, as I write - are relayed information about tuna schools moving through the Mediterranean by spotter planes; when a school is located feasibly close to the boats, they give chase, then trap the entire school within a huge circular net. The purse seine system has the advantage that it does not trap many animals beside the bluefins.

But the invention that saved the Japanese sushi trade was the tuna farm, or more precisely the tuna ranch, and it goes back less than a decade. It works like this. Once the trawler has trapped its school inside the purse seine's nets, a tug boat chugs into view towing an enormous underwater cage. The entire catch is transferred into the cage, which the tug hauls slowly, speed around 3 knots, towards its home base.

Once there - the journey can take weeks, because it is a highly stressful procedure for the bluefins and if care is not taken many can die - the fish are transferred again, this time to the huge circular net anchored offshore which is their home for the following months, until they are fat enough to be slaughtered. Here they are fed, night and day, immense quantities of baitfish - sardines, pilchards, mackerel and horse mackerel - brought in frozen. They've lost their freedom but they have wound up in an immense watery larder.

Unless something goes wrong - and storms have wreaked havoc with some farms, red tides have asphyxiated masses of bluefins, there is a lively fear of viruses that may be brought by the baitfish - the tuna remain in the farm, stuffing themselves until considered gross enough to be shot in the head. Then they are blast-frozen and shipped off in a coffin-like box to Tsukiji, the famous fish market in Tokyo.

The tuna ranch has solved Japan's sushi dilemma by providing a large, reliable, captive supply of the prime tuna that the Japanese like best, and because the supply is large and growing it is not even that expensive any more. True, the connoisseurs lament that the ranch tuna does not compare for quality with the wild tuna of the old days, and Japanese consumer groups complain that it can contain unacceptable levels of pollutants, brought by contaminated baitfish. But it is affordable. It is no longer a luxury. From being a luxury it has become a staple.

But if the tuna ranch has solved a Japanese problem, it has created a new one - for Europe initially, then for the rest of the world, including the Japanese.

When the first tuna ranches were set up nine years ago, says Paolo Guglielmi of WWF's Mediterranean policy group in Rome, "already the stock of tuna in the Mediterranean was critically over-fished: spawning tuna were only 20 per cent of the number of 15 or 20 years ago". That was the situation in 1996. But now, Mr Guglielmi insists, "we are completely out of any control. It's a disaster." Tuna, which mature sexually between five and eight years, can live up to 30 years and attain an astonishing size and weight - up to 3 metres long (10ft) and 600kg (95 stone). "But now," says Mr Guglielmi, "the average size is reducing year by year, which means the stock is suffering and reducing".

One particularly striking example: in the closed waters of the Adriatic, Croatian tuna ranchers feed their captured tuna for two to three years, compared to the normal maximum of six months elsewhere - the reason being that the tuna are so small when caught. The average size of the captured fish has plummeted from 24.2kg in 1999 to only 8.2kg in 2002.

As tuna continue breeding throughout their adult lives, it is obvious that the mass catching and subsequent killing of young tuna drastically reduces the stock's capacity to reproduce.

The crux of the problem is that the huge profits to be wrung out of the trade have caused the number of ranches in the Mediterranean to multiply, each linked to one of the Japanese sogo shosha or international trading companies feeding directly into the Japanese market. Starting with the non-EU member Croatia, ranches have sprung up in Spain, which now dominates the business, and also in Italy, Malta, Turkey, Tunisia, Libya, Greece, Cyprus, Morocco and Algeria.

Countries within the EU can be expected to pay at least lip service to the quotas imposed by the industry's regulatory body, the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT). But some of the newcomers treat it with evident contempt. "It is well known that Libya has already started tuna farming activities in its territory," says the WWF's 2004 report on the problem, but "the Libyan authorities are not providing ICCAT with any information." Libya has refused to answer questions from the body or to send a delegation to its meetings.

But there is no need to be as brazen as Libya to avoid regulation. Because the tuna, whose natural habitat is the open sea, are captured in international waters, monitoring the numbers caught is immensely difficult. To date ICCAT has relied on the reports of the capturing companies; however, calculating backwards from the amount of tuna landing in the Japanese market it is clear that the quotas have been massively exceeded. But ICCAT has done nothing to remedy the situation.

Mr Guglielmi again: "We proposed putting observers on the fishing boats, on the tugs that tow the cages back to shore or at the farming cages where they are fattened. All these proposals were rejected. ICCAT has the power to impose sanctions on those exceeding quotas, but they don't want to do it. It was clear at the last ICCAT meeting in Vancouver that the organisation is totally dominated by commercial companies, and is refusing to take any action to stop the catastrophe. It's a way of sharing out the pie, not a resource management tool."

To compete in the increasingly vicious war between ranchers, all sorts of dodges are employed. Slaughtered tuna are frozen on board ships to avoid declaring them on land; many are not exported directly to Japan, where controls are stringent, but first to the many companies set up by Japan's sogo shosha in so-called "inspection-friendly" countries in China and South-east Asia (a new one is shortly to open in Vietnam), where they are processed, then shipped to Japan under a different denomination. The overall quotas stipulated by ICCAT are criticised by WWF and others as unsustainably large. But those quotas in turn prove to be fictions. Far more Mediterranean tuna are reaching Japan than are supposed to be removed from the sea.

Environmentalists have given up hope of getting any solution either from ICCAT or from the EU, which provides millions in subsidies to the ranchers. WWF's last hope is that the Japanese trading companies can be made to see that their behaviour is leading to the end of the bluefin in the Mediterranean. "Many of the ranchers are vertically integrated with the Japanese companies," says Mr Guglielmi. "The future of the tuna is in the hands of the Japanese companies."

But as the world has witnessed in other fields such as car exports, Japanese companies are culturally ill-equipped to reach agreements between themselves on the basis of long-term projections. Ferocious competition tends to continue until it hits a brick wall - the extinction of the Mediterranean bluefin, for example.

"There is a catastrophe in front of our eyes but no one wants to see it," says Mr Guglielmi.

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