‘sometimes you get lucky and this year we did’: harvesting the endangered Southern Blue Fin Tuna

Winter has ended and with it the peak season for catching Southern Blue Fin Tuna off South East Australia. And apparently it has been a bumper season. Long-lining commercial fishers are happy and so too are recreational anglers using rods and spear guns. The internet is replete with images and footage of men (they only ever seem to be men) proudly holding up their trophies or beaming over fish flapping around decks.

The tuna caught off NSW had already run the summer gauntlet along the South Australian coast where commercial fishers use purse seine nets to corale juvenile fish into port for fattening and then sale to Japan – the world’s biggest market for the Southern Blue Fin Tuna. South Australian Tuna Industry spokesman Brian Jeffriess was ecstatic: ‘It’s not just the size but the better condition of the fish that you would have expected at this time of the year’. The Leeuwin Current was strong this season, favouring the fishers rather than the fish. As Jeffriess acknowledged ‘Sometimes you get lucky and this year we did’.

Frozen Tuna at Tokyo Fish Market 2009
Most Australia-caught Southern Blue Fin Tuna is exported to Japan. Frozen Tuna at Tokyo Fish Market 2009 (Photo by Ian Hoskins)

The odd thing is that these fish are widely regarded as endangered – a result of devastating over-fishing in the post-war decades. That was the status recommended by the NSW Fisheries Scientific Committee in 2004 and it still is so classified under the NSW Fisheries Management Act. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) goes one further and lists the Southern Blue Fin Tuna as ‘critically endangered’. The population is less than 10% of its pre-fished size.

This is not surprising given the Tuna’s physiology. They are apex predators – muscular, warm blooded – quick in the water but slow to mature to reproductive age. A tuna can live as long as 40 years but doesn’t reproduce until it is at least 8. Animals with this profile are more vulnerable than most to over-fishing.

So why are we still killing them?

One part of the answer is that, like so much in science these days, the figures are contested. Because it is a migratory species harvesting of this Tuna is managed by an international body – the Commission for the Conservation of Southern Blue Fin Tuna. Quotas set by this body have fluctuated over the years but have recently gone up because monitoring has indicated a rise in population. However the migratory habits of the Tuna also make monitoring difficult. The good news is that Australia’s commercial fisheries are among the best managed in the world. But that doesn’t alter the differing conclusions drawn from science which are pause for thought for fish eaters.

Another part of the answer has to do, perhaps unsurprisingly, with economics. There is money to be made both in commercial fishing and recreational fishing with its ripple effects in tourism. This is not to necessarily imply a few making huge dollars – though some may well be doing very well – but rather the harvesting of tuna supports the livelihoods of commercial fishers and small communities, and is therefore supported by governments.

A third consideration relates to our peculiar attitude to marine creatures. Denizens of the deep are somehow different to those that roam the land. In Australia we have largely marginalised the hunting gun culture that is still so prevalent in the US. But fish are the last wild harvest and catching them is still widely regarded as a right – a link to something elemental and basic perhaps. We are not only far more amenable to killing fish, regardless apparently of their conservation status, but we celebrate the activity. One of the You-Tube clips I accessed through the Ulladulla Game Fishing Club website, shows recreational fishers bagging Southern Blue Fin Tuna off the south coast of New South Wales. It begins with a proud shot of a gleaming power boat, follows through with the fight and finishes with the last gasps of a bleeding fish and big smiles and thumbs up from the victors. The action is accompanied by the muscular riffs of Metallica’s ‘Enter Sandman’.

All of this is, of course, quite legal. It is also pretty clearly a demonstration of humanity’s ‘right’ to dominate nature and take what we want, not necessarily what we need. I know that the recreational Tuna catch is far smaller than the commercial, but there is something especially problematic about killing an animal that is, at best, struggling back from the brink – simply for fun. Professional fishers may well enjoy their work but it is ultimately a livelihood. Recreational fishers have more of a choice about what they catch.

Things change and sometimes very quickly. Our casual toleration of whaling persisted up to the 1960s at least. By 1979 Australia had harpooned its last whale and over the following decades whale watching rather than killing became profitable. Our centuries’ old hatred of sharks, so spectacularly demonstrated by countless photographs of crowds surrounding the hoisted carcasses of these ‘monsters’, is also shifting. People are actually protesting against the culling and hunting of sharks in the wake of fatal shark attacks. The refrain ‘we enter their world at our own risk’ is the common, and remarkably humble, response.

I wonder when caution and respect will be accorded the Southern Blue Fin Tuna at least by the recreational anglers.