Debate: Will You Eat the Last Bluefin Tuna?

It is now well known that stocks of the famed Northern bluefin tuna — known as kuro maguro or hon maguro in Japanese — are on the brink of collapse.

Still, this beast of the sea’s soft buttery flesh is delicious. The most prized cut, otoro, is from the fish’s fatty belly and is the jewel in the crown of the sashimi dining experience.

Paul Greenberg is author of Four Fish,  a book about the dominance of a few fish species across the globe. He, like many of us has succumbed to the tuna temptation against his better judgement.

The problem that he and others assert is that tuna is not whale. That is, overwhelmingly across the globe it is as culturally acceptable to eat bluefin tuna as it is culturally unacceptable to eat whale.

So what to do? Do we forgo one of life’s little pleasures in the name of the common good? And if we do, will that even make a difference?

“The new fish stories can be read as parables about technology. What was, once upon a time, a stable relationship between predator and prey was transformed by new ‘machinery’ into a deadly mismatch. This reading isn’t so much wrong as misleading. To paraphrase the old N.R.A. favorite, FADs don’t kill fish, people do.”

At present, the reality is that if we don’t eat the bluefin, some eager sushi diner anywhere on the globe will eat it anyway. Most likely, they will be from Japan, a country responsible for a huge 70-80% of global consumption. Even if the World Wildlife Fund for Nature succeeds in its newly-launched campaign to encourage Japanese consumers to join the fight to save the bluefin tuna, won’t it probably end up in the greedy hands of some mega-corporation anyway?

“Perhaps we will never come to feel about tuna the way we have come to feel about whales, but it is to this example we must look if we are to fix our tuna problem once and for all,” Greenberg laments.

On this week’s Debate 2.0 we ask, can humanity rescue the bluefin tuna? Would you be willing to give up eating it? Furthermore, would you encourage others to give it up also? If so, how?

Creative Commons License
Debate 2.0: Will you eat the last bluefin tuna? by Mark Notaras is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.



Mark Notaras was a writer/editor of Our World 2.0 for the United Nations University (UNU) Media Centre from 2009–2012. He is a former researcher in Peace and Security for the UNU Institute for Sustainability and Peace (UNU-ISP). He holds a Masters in International Affairs (Peace and Conflict Studies) from the Australian National University and the Peace Research Institute, Oslo (PRIO) and in 2013 completed a Rotary Peace Fellowship at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok. Currently Mark works in Timor-Leste advising local NGOs on community agriculture and conflict prevention projects.

Join the Discussion

  • Live in Japan. Ate sushi for dinner. Never eat tuna. No one in my family does. Would I give it up? Already have. Would I encourage others to give it up. Already have.

    • Saoko Ikuno

      So you have been encouraging other to give it up. May I ask how you have been doing that?

  • The more I learn about the state of the planet and the creatures great & small that we share it with, the more I’m learning to give up. Yes, tuna is delicious. But then so are so many abundant things! People who can’t make such small sacrifices are somehow without conscience, aren’t they? How? What happened to theirs? I’m waiting for some commenters to come along and enlighten me.

    • AlanZulch

      Hi Carol, I won’t pretend this is enlightening, but I found a recent article in the NY Times interesting as it examined why some people resist change even when facts would warrant it (the topic was climate change, but it could apply here, too.). Here is a quote:

      “It taps into deep personal identities and causes what Dan Kahan of Yale calls “protective cognition” — we judge things in part on whether we see ourselves as rugged individualists mastering nature or as members of interconnected societies who live in harmony with the environment. Powerful special interests like the coal and oil industries have learned how to halt movement on climate policy by exploiting the fear people feel when their identities are threatened.”

      I googled Dan Kahan, the Yale Law School researcher referenced here, and downloaded the original research paper. Very interesting how it explores personal identity and rejection of threats to that identity, particularly when the identity is based on a worldview of hierarchy and individualism.

      If I see the world through a lens of “less for you is more for me” and I’m willing to fight for my share, then any twinges of conscience might very well take a back seat.

      • Well Alan, that paper does sound enlightening and I think I should read it. Not that it will help me accept the facts though, as my personal identity seems quite stubborn in its unwillingness to accept these other types… lol…

  • I love Tuna, I really love it, but i stopped eating it some months ago.
    Now i prefer to eat smaller fish not in danger of extintion.

  • kymmenen

    From an individualistic point of view, to me, all species on Earth will become extinct when I die.

    If I am raised in educational systems that encourage madly individual effort for individual success, and later I join as an adult societies where common wealth and prosperity are restricted as rewards only in exchange to individual work and productivity, how and why on Earth am I expected to think of the tuna from a non-individualist point of view?

    Lots of people don’t care about tuna in the same way they don’t care about their fellow human beings. As simple as that.

    • BrendanBarrett

      Hi kymmenen, thanks for your comment. That is a rather bleak view of our relationships with this world and with each other. I think it is always possible to look beyond the educational system and societal influences to decide for yourself what you think is right and wrong. That is where most of the progress that takes place in this world comes from, i.e. people questioning how things are and asking how can we do this better.

  • Johanna Stratton

    Perhaps we should rename bluefin tuna, and other endangered tuna species. How about “koala bluefin” for the East Asian market, or “dolphin bluefin” for the West? Arguably name association needs some meddling with if we are to have a greater impact on humanity’s insatiable appetite for these great fish.

    I don’t hold out great hope that education and informed choice will lead to enlightened and sustainable seafood consumption across the Seven Seas. We are, collectively, too greedy and short-sighted in our hunting and feeding habits. After all, even without 21st century technology, the Moa was hunted to extinction by the Māori before European settlement.

    • marknotaras

      Johanna has picked up on a key point here about name association. In fact one of the problems I have encountered since deciding to give up bluefin around a year ago, is that people (including me) do not know how to distinguish between the types of tuna out there. It’s a complex topic and most people should not be expected to be fish experts.

      To re-count one awkward situation which occurred on the weekend, I requested not to have tuna in my sushi set (in rural Japan) on the basis that it might have been Atlantic bluefin. This offended the chef who was providing locally caught tuna and caused some consternation among fellow diners. Most people don’t want to ask or receive 5 questions about the fish being served so it’s sometimes easier to either A) just avoid tuna altogether, or B) sit back and enjoy blissfully.

      The reason I asked the question about encouraging others is that it can come across as preachy if friends are about to tuck into some sushi and you say “by the way this is endangered, I don’t eat it”. but at the end of the day if you believe in a cause and you haven’t got on people’s nerves then you are probably not doing a good job.

      I agree with David in that it is best to stick to small fish, and generally support your local fishmonger and fishing community, not commercial fisheries who are force feeding us the same old unsustainable farmed salmon and illegal tuna.

      • Snowman

        I live in Japan. Unfortunately, like suggestion by marknotaras, tuna is the most important content in sushi. My family always buy sushi set at supermarket, but every set is including tuna (maybe not expensive bluefin). By main article, I know that tuna trading is related by famous conpanies, and that’s why the public opinion in Japan is not sensitive to save fishes. I think supermakets should introduce “sustinable sushi set” every day, and hope that people would reduce to buy sushi and sashimi at the supermarket.

    • Ainius Lasas

      I agree with Johanna in terms of people’s greediness and shortsightedness. I don’t think renaming bluefin tuna will help because they aren’t (and won’t be) as charming to us as dolphins and koalas. Still I believe the key is in getting the message through to political leaders and encouraging them to adopt this issue and run with it one country at a time.

  • Megumi Nishikura

    Of course it would be great if restaurants began adapting their menus but since their end goal is profit it is really up to the individual consumer to be aware of what’s on the endangered list or not.
    I think one of the challenges we face is that there is just too much information out there about what’s good and what’s not, making it difficult to draw upon that information when we need it the most ie. sitting down at a restaurant.

    If there was only an iPhone app that I could reference when selecting my dish for the evening…

    • AlanZulch

      Ask and ye shall receive! Here is an iPhone app from the esteemed SeafoodWATCH:

      “Our new iPhone application brings the latest Seafood Watch recommendations directly to your iPhone or iPod touch. Now you can make sustainable seafood choices quickly and easily—whether you’re eating at your favorite restaurant or shopping for dinner. And at a time when the world’s oceans are severely overfished, your seafood choices make a big difference.”

  • Jahnjapan

    i have stopped eating sushi and especially tuna a while ago. sometimes i buy fish at my local organic shop with the offical trade sign on it – thats it. i don`t stop telling people about these issues, my boyfriend even started hiding tuna in the cupboard – but i always find it : )

  • Mike C

    I used to eat a lot of tuna. All kinds of tuna. But I stopped recently when I found out that eating smaller fish (like sardines) is better for my health (less mercury and other bad minerals).

  • J. Lee

    At the rate that the world’s population is growing, we’re going to consume and exhaust everything. A bigger underlying issue is population, we cannot co-exist and conserve resources if we consume more than it can renew. We have to practice population control. However, our economic system relies heavily on population growth. Humans being greedy in nature, we will see vast extinction of many floras and fauna caused by us (as is already happening), and eventually, mass starvation and lack of clean water supply in the future.

  • Remi Chandran

    First congratulations to Mark for bringing up this issue and ringing bells on the state of ‘one’ Deep sea species among the many thats waitlisted for extinction. Now to the question on whether I would have (Blue fin)Tuna or related species – the answer is no- because I know scientifically that its in the red list. But how many of them does know about it? Recently, I browsed through the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture and fisheries website. Unlike with whale meat, there is no message on promoting consumption of Tuna. This is good news and should be definetly taken as a progress. However, there is a general assumption that blue fin tuna is part of the Japanese culture.. which I doubt. Once the word ‘culture’ is suffixed to a fish species, its just difficult to take it out of the menu!! Modern consumption style is not based on quantity but the uniqueness food flavor can bring. Taking Tuna out of the menu could be difficult – but not impossible. So if we talk about Japanese culture its the Yellow tail that should be part of the menu and not the ‘Atlantic’ Blue fin!!

  • resty

    may be it’s time to STOP nuclear testing in open seas…

  • Saoko Ikuno

    One thing I hate about this country is that there is no such concept as “animal right.” (Not much children’s right, either.) So I cannot expect us to care about “fish”… And I do not know how to encourage people not to eat those tuna. I do not know how to do that without offending people. If they are offended, they would never listen to you. I would like to know if there is any way to encourgage people not to eat certain food including veal and foie gras, of course endangered spices… Does anyone have any suggestions?

    • marknotaras

      thanks for the comment Saoko. I have seen change in a few people after someone else had mentioned something to them, but I do notice that people are sensitive, perhaps naturally, to people suggesting they change. I think it helps that the person suggesting change is environmentally sustainable in other aspects of their life and can also articulate the reasons for their behavioral change e.g. I stopped eating tuna because i want my kids to enjoy the fruits of the ocean.

      It seems we have a conundrum generally with environmental change. The soft approach to encouraging more sustainable living will convince a few people and makes the broader population feel better (e.g. i don’t mind World Wildlife Fund but Greenpeace are too radical for me because they illegally climb buildings/block trees etc).

      On the other hand, the hard approach (something that interrogates people directly, shocking protest etc) seems to turn people off but without it, will we really achieve anything if the problems are so big and the time we have to solve them is so short?

  • Saoko Ikuno

    Thank you, Mark. It is very challenging for me to talk about what to eat and what not to eat. Usually when I talk about food issue, I often get this kind of reaction “So you are saying you are morallly superior to us?” or “Are you judging us?”

    I think it is an expremely senseitive issue because when we are eating things, we want to forget what we are eating is a killed animal/fish. We do not want to see that ‘killing actions’ were ever involved. And indeed we are actually making other people’s hand covered with blood for food and pretending the food was not a killed animal/fish. So of course we do not want to think about food issue.

    I usually tell my kids not to eat certain food because I want them to learn it is so wrong to bully or exploit other people/creatures, and I believe it starts from paying attention to what are around us, like bugs, small animals, farm animals, rish in the river…

    So I am still trying to find ways to discuss food issues with people without offending them or making them uncomfortable. So I was happy to find this debate 2.0.

    I must admit, though. Sometimes I believe in the hard approach. Of course, it will have the opposite effect if it is too much, but people (of course including me) are so busy with themselves and do not pay attention to things that do not cause immediate crisis.

  • Joyce

    Blue fin tuna – known as Kuro Maguro or Honmaguro in Japan. It is a main and fancy dish in Japanese cuisine. Japanese has succumbed to the tuna temptation.

    Blue fin tunas are on the brink of collapse. Japan has the biggest responsible for this. 70-80% of blue fin tunas are eaten by Japanese ever year. World Wildlife Fund of Nature had succeeded in encouraging Hapanese consumers by launching newly campaign. However, it doesn’t end because there is still some mega-corporations out there. Besides, people assert that tuna is not a whale. People know that they should protect whales by not eating them, but not tuna, although their amount is decreasing. In conclusion, perhaps people will never come to feel about tune the way people have come to feel about whales.

    However, this has become a serious global issue. We should find out solutions to solve this problem before it is too late.

    Joyce Fam Hui Yi
    Senshuu University, Japan

  • Rikako Sato

    The article “Will you eat the last tuna?” was written by Mark Notaras.
    This document asserts that Japanese eat too much blue fin tuna, so we
    are on the brink of collapse.
    Blue fin tuna is known as kuro maguro or hon maguro in Japanese. The
    fish loved by many people, because the tunas are delicious with just
    enough fat. Many tunas are eaten as sushi and so on. However, there is
    a problem that is overwhelmingly across the globe it is as culturally
    acceptable to eat blue fin tuna as it is culturally unacceptable to
    eat whale.
    Japan consume 70~80% tuna, so responsible for save tuna all over
    the world.
    As a lover of tuna and sushi, I want to eat it in future. I
    thought if another fish take the place of tuna, we can eat flesh fish

    Rikako Sato

  • marknotaras