Advocates Hope Science Can Save a Big Tuna

Giant bluefin tuna, which can grow as large as 1,500 pounds in the wild, are studied at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, the only facility in North America where these fish are held in captivity for exhibit and research.
Giant bluefin tuna, which can grow as large as 1,500 pounds in the wild, are studied at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, the only facility in North America where these fish are held in captivity for exhibit and research. (Randy Wilder, Monterey Bay Aquarium )
By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 24, 2007

For centuries, humans have mythologized the bluefin tuna, an elite, warmblooded fish that can traverse the Atlantic basin in less than a month and a half and grow to weigh three-quarters of a ton. Romans put bluefin on their coins; Salvador Dali painted them.

Now, researchers are using hard science to prevent the fish from going extinct.

Analyzing facets including chemical markers in the tuna's ear bones and satellite readings generated by tags attached to migrating fish, marine biologists are beginning to decipher how separate bluefin populations travel and spawn. And those distinctions, they say, may help determine whether fishery managers can preserve the Atlantic's remaining giant tuna.

"We know phenomenally more about bluefin now than we did 15 years ago. We know enough to save this species," said Michael Sutton, vice president and director of the Center for the Future of the Oceans at Monterey Bay Aquarium in California. "We don't have the will."

As demand for the tasty fish has soared among sushi connoisseurs -- and as Americans and Europeans face off over who bears the most responsibility for plummeting Atlantic bluefin stocks -- scientists have helped answer one of the key questions now confronting fishery managers: Two separate populations of bluefin swim in the Atlantic basin. In other words, humans cannot afford to let either stock disappear completely, because they are genetically distinct.

For years, Europeans have been overfishing bluefin tuna that breed in the Mediterranean. In fact, for the past four years European Union officials have set catch quotas at nearly double the levels their scientists recommended, and fishermen have exceeded those already-elevated quotas by 50 percent each year. In the United States, the federal government has imposed greater restrictions, but fishermen can still bring home bluefin tuna they incidentally catch as the fish are spawning each spring in the Gulf of Mexico.

"We have some excellent science," said John Graves, a professor at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science who studies bluefin by conducting DNA analysis. "The real challenge here is to get the science translated into management, and that's where we're hitting a roadblock."

The fact that bluefin from the Mediterranean and those from the Gulf of Mexico mix most of the year has led some fishermen to think the stock off America's East Coast has been faring better than it actually is, Graves said. Instead, he added, fishery managers need to realize that western Atlantic bluefin off the East Coast are in dire shape. There are two other species of bluefin, Pacific and southern, which face their own fishing pressures.

"What you have now are essentially two stocks, but the only time the stocks are separated is during spawning," Graves said, adding that the two Atlantic populations do not interbreed. "We need to protect the western stock, because that's a unique genetic entity."

For years, researchers knew little about how pelagic fish such as bluefin travel, feed and mate. But new developments have allowed scientists to better understand a species that can fetch more than $170,000 for a single fish.

"It's the Porsche of the ocean," said Sutton, whose aquarium keeps bluefins in its Outer Bay exhibit. "It's as fast as a sports car, it weighs as much as a sports car and it's as valuable as a sports car."

Satellite tags -- which can record the temperature of the ocean as well as the depth at which the fish swim and the level of light to which they are exposed -- have provided scientists with a precise record of how bluefin tuna travel. Stanford University marine biologist Barbara A. Block and her colleagues tagged two fish within a matter of minutes off western Ireland; within eight months, the fish were more than 3,000 miles apart. One had traveled to waters just northeast of Cuba; the other swam off the coast of Portugal.

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