The contradictions of the reality TV show Wicked Tuna, which follows fishers out of Gloucester, Massachusetts, as they use hook-and-line to catch bluefin tuna, are utterly mind-bending. Normally, I’d be cheering hook-and-line commercial fishers at the top of my lungs – unlike long lines or purse seines, there’s little bycatch – but unfortunately bluefin tuna is the posterfish for overexploitation and international havoc. Estimated to be at 17-33% percent of its 1950 spawning stock biomass, bluefin is being overfished so badly that it won’t recover even under the current “rebuilding quotas.” So I was pretty shocked that National Geographic, ostensibly a conservation organization, will soon air an entire show about killing off this badly damaged population.
Possibly in response to criticism from marine conservationist Carl Safina, National Geographic has stuffed Wicked Tuna‘s webpage with conservation content. There’s interviews with scientists (Safina included), an overview of tuna conservation issues, and a seafood guide that has the unintentionally ironic message of urging consumers to avoid both bluefin tuna and New England cod and halibut. There’s even the astonishing spectacle of Gloucester fishermen stiffly proclaiming how much they love NOAA regulations over the caption: “The Wicked Tuna fishermen talk about the benefits of fishing quotas.” THAT is a sentence that’s rarely been written! Gloucester is famous for its intense dislike of fisheries regulations, periodically hanging scientists and regulators (and themselves) in effigy to protest changes in fisheries management.
The Gloucester fishermen argue that the United States bluefin fishery is tiny and well-managed, and that population is declining because of European overfishing and illegal fishing. This is true. According to Taylor et al. 2011’a bluefin population estimate:
Because of the mixed-stock composition of western Atlantic fisheries, the successful rebuilding of the western population is tied to controlling the much larger fishing mortality rates that occur on the eastern stock. For example, continued high fishing mortality rates in the Mediterranean Sea and eastern Atlantic may compromise rebuilding efforts for the western Atlantic population. The converse, however, is not true. The eastern stock is both much larger and much more concentrated in the Mediterranean Sea. ICCAT could potentially increase the chances of successful western-stock rebuilding if it began to model and consider recovery plans for eastern and western populations jointly rather than independently.
Translation: unless the Europeans get their act together, it doesn’t really matter how careful the Gloucester fishermen are. The western population of bluefin off the east coast of the US is dependent on the eastern population off the west coast of Europe.
So, then, what is my problem with Wicked Tuna? It’s this: by glamorizing the process of catching bluefin, I fear that Wicked Tuna will drive up consumer demand, leading to even more overfishing and driving the bluefin closer to functional extinction. The popularity of The Deadliest Catch drove up the American market demand for king crab – but since Alaska king crab is a well-managed fishery, this was good for the crab fishers without impacting the sustainability of the fishery. In contrast, the international market for bluefin is about as far from well-managed as you can get. According to Pew Environment Group, 141% more tuna was sold in 2010 than was even allowed to be caught under the current quota, pointing to rampant overfishing. Even this estimate doesn’t account for the enormous black market in eastern Atlantic bluefin tuna. Under this poor management, an increased demand for tuna will increase prices, leading to more and more overfishing for the last remaining large tuna. This may already be happening – in January, a bluefin tuna auctioned in Japan sold for $736,000, or $1,238 per pound.
This mess isn’t the Gloucester fishers’ fault. They are following the law. My question is for National Geographic, an organization that purports to have a conservation message. If a reality show combines the hunting of a severely depleted species (possibly increasing demand for its meat) with a conservation message – does that make it ok? National Geographic thinks so:
National Geographic Society executive vice-president for mission programs Terry Garcia says he hopes that the National Geographic Channel’s new reality series about bluefin fishermen, Wicked Tuna, will raise awareness of the issues surrounding the bluefin’s prospects for survival. “Educating and illuminating this issue for the public is something we need to do,” he explains. “It hasn’t been, up to this point. I was in favor of doing this show if we coupled it with a solid [conservation] message about what’s been going on with the bluefin… this is a complicated issue.”….
Unlike in the eastern Atlantic and Mediterranean, where there have been widespread allegations of illegal fishing, the U.S. fishing industry is “the best in the world” in legal compliance, according to the National Geographic Society’s Garcia, a former NOAA staffer who participated in ICCAT negotiations on bluefin conservation in the 1990s. “But that doesn’t change the essential fact, which is that bluefin stocks are overfished. You can go back and forth on how we got here, but with bluefin at such low abundance levels, the real question is, what do you do about that?”
Indeed. What do we do about that? Will Wicked Tuna get people excited about hard choices in high seas fisheries regulation, or just make them hungry for some bluefin sushi? My cynical side says that the latter – wanting to identify with the Wicked Tuna fishers by partaking of their catch – is far more likely than the former. And since most people and restaurants don’t know where their fish comes from, the bluefin they eat could easily come from from Spain (one of the worst fisheries offenders), not Gloucester, therefore contributing to the end of the bluefin.
Still, maybe I’m too pessimistic. Maybe people will identify with the Wicked Tuna fishers by cultivating Massachusetts accents (oh, please, let people in SoCal start saying “wicked ahsome” – I’d feel so much less alone!) and advocating for better cross-Atlantic cooperation in bluefin fisheries regulation and a crackdown on illegal fishing. Maybe Wicked Tuna will shine such a spotlight on the plight of international fisheries management that this magnificent fish – and fishers who star in Wicked Tuna – will find a way to survive. We’ll see.
[UPDATE: I wrote a followup post based on the reactions to this one. Check it out.]