By Shannon Ray
As rewilding has taken off in the UK, so have species reintroductions: from beavers to bison, charismatic animals who were extirpated hundreds of years ago are being brought back to restore their native ecosystems, and visitors from all over the country have flocked to see them populate Britain’s countryside once more. In our seas, meanwhile, one of the UK’s most exciting, rare species has returned all by themselves. But instead of being cherished and carefully protected like other magnificent creatures back from the brink, they are being hunted commercially to supply high-end restaurants with luxury meat.
Image credit: iStock.com/Whitepointer
Atlantic bluefin tuna are native to UK waters. Once abundant in such size and numbers that they became a favourite of big game fishers, they drew tourists to the Yorkshire coast with hopes of reeling in creatures weighing nearly half a tonne. But they disappeared in the 1960s after being depleted by commercial fisheries keen to satisfy the global appetite for the fish whose size and rarity made them a status symbol for wealthy foodies.
Absent for fifty years, bluefin tuna were first sighted in UK waters again in 2014. Scientists have discovered that warming waters and greater prey abundance is likely to have caused their return. Also, beginning in 2010, the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas, along with several countries that had previously fished them intensively, began to address overfishing of bluefin tuna by reducing catch quotas and cracking down on illegal fishing. In his book Rewilding the Sea, Charles Clover of the Blue Marine Foundation calls this effort to restore bluefin tuna populations ‘one of the great conservation achievements of this century’.
Yet the UK has made the decision to exploit the return of Bluefin tuna and undermine the conservation victory by starting a commercial fishery. This summer, an Atlantic bluefin tuna was legally caught and killed in UK waters for the first time in more than 70 years. The tuna, whose ancestors were fished to almost extinction in the 1960s, is part of a new generation who triumphantly returned almost ten years ago, but are now destined to be consumed by London elites at gourmet sushi restaurants. How could this happen to a once critically endangered species, whose population is still a fraction of its former size?
Bluefin tuna leaping at Watergate Bay, Newquay, UK. Credit: Megan Hemsworth
Unbelievably, the catch was sanctioned by the Environment Department (DEFRA) and the Marine Management Organisation (MMO), who announced earlier this year that they would begin trialling a small-scale bluefin tuna commercial fishery this summer to investigate the ‘economic benefits’ that the fish may offer––in other words, to make money. The trial fishery opened after DEFRA and the MMO secured their quota of bluefin tuna, and is set to be accompanied by a new catch and release recreational fishery next year.
The stage was set for these new fisheries when Atlantic bluefin tuna first reappeared in UK waters, and DEFRA began a catch and release tagging programme, allowing anglers to fish the animals for sport so long as they agreed to tag them before releasing them. At the time, it was argued that this would allow the government to record data on their numbers and movements, whilst providing recreational fishers with an opportunity to contribute to the ‘future’ of the tuna. How exactly catching and releasing the fish for sport helps to guarantee them a future in the UK is unclear. Similarly shoddy reasoning was used to argue that the fishery would ensure ‘the protection of bluefin tuna welfare by releasing bluefin tuna unharmed once tagged’––as though dragging someone along on a hook and suffocating them for sport are mere trifles. The fishers participating in the scheme described how the tuna would ‘fight all the way to the boat’––and indeed, the MMO instructed fishers to ‘offer any bluefin tuna that die during the capture process to the MMO, for scientific research’.
UK fishers have argued that the commercial fishery will be sustainable, ‘limited to one fish per boat per day, with a set quota for the month’. But there are serious criticisms of this idea, as ‘even “sustainably harvesting” fish results in major ecological changes to marine systems’. This is particularly true of commercial fisheries, whose pursuit of maximum economic gains has seen species after species of fish collapse from fishing pressure. In practice, ‘sustainable’ fishing tends to follow the same pattern: a large fish species, deemed ‘sustainable’, is targeted until it disappears. When there is no more of that species left, commercial fishers move on to a smaller fish, selling it as sustainable (and sometimes giving it a more appealing name so that people are actually willing to eat it) until it, too, collapses. This goes on down the length of the food chain, until bigger species’ populations start recovering.
It appears that rather than learning our lesson, we immediately target those bigger species, starting the cycle back up again. The absence of fishing pressure for decades is precisely what has enabled the bluefin tuna to bounce back, yet DEFRA and the MMO have responded to their return by instructing the commercial fishing industry to pick up right where they left off. It’s like announcing that the moment beavers are allowed to be released into the wild, a commercial hunting operation will be set up so that we can start selling their fur, meat and castor again. This would never happen to a species that has been deliberately introduced. So why has it been the response to the return of the bluefin tuna?
Part of the answer, at least, must be that the seafood industry has trained us to see fish as food, first and foremost, rather than as individual animals or even species. Google ‘beavers UK’ and the first page of search results is dominated by headlines from conservation groups made up of celebratory phrases like ‘keystone species’, ‘native to the UK’, and ‘the rightful return of beavers to Britain’. Now try Googling ‘bluefin tuna UK’. The results are very different: dominated by fishing groups and fine dining magazines, these headlines read ‘14 things for anglers to know’; ‘UK recreational tuna fishery’ and ‘world’s most expensive fish’.
Fish are the only wild animals that are hunted on an industrial scale, and many people still believe that they are less intelligent than charismatic mammals, or that they don’t feel pain, despite a body of research that has decisively proven their sentience. Atlantic bluefin tuna are particularly magnificent animals: living for up to fifty years if left alone by fishers, they are top predators, hunting cooperatively to maintain balance and health in ocean ecosystems. Powerful and fast, they leap out of the water to gain speed and advantage over their prey in displays as magnificent as those of breaching dolphins and whales. Why are we told by the seafood industry that we need catch and release fisheries to bring in tourists, when we know that the opportunity to catch a glimpse of these incredible animals undisturbed in their natural habitat is exciting enough on its own? As evidenced by the global fleet of whale watching boats that draw in tourists around the world, this superficial argument holds up no better now than it did when we fought (and won) to ban commercial whaling decades ago.
UK fishers have also attempted to justify the fisheries on the grounds that bluefin tuna are now abundant in such numbers that British seas are ‘bubbling’ with them. Yet how can anyone make claims like these when we know that Atlantic bluefin tuna numbers are down by 80–90% compared to historical levels? This must surely be a manifestation of shifting baseline syndrome, wherein each new generation sees the depleted fish populations of their lifetimes as normal, unable to imagine the abundance that may have existed before 90% of marine life was lost to fishing.
The reality is that the recovery of Atlantic bluefin tuna is still in its infancy. At a time when marine scientists are calling for a global ban on bluefin tuna fisheries, we should not be opening up new ones that will again relegate the animals to the list of species that have been hunted to extinction in the UK. Our waters should be a safe haven for bluefin tuna, not a hunting ground. Rather than commercially fishing them, it’s time to acknowledge bluefin tuna for the charismatic megafauna they are, to be grateful for their miraculous return and protect them in UK waters.
Sign our petition to protect bluefin tuna in UK waters.