Food Waste Files: Bluefin Tuna Tossed Overboard in the Gulf

For years, Atlantic bluefin tuna has been the very definition of the seafood red list. And the decision by the high-end restaurant Nobu to continue selling the sought-after, but threatened delicacy has received a great deal of criticism from activists and celebrities alike. (It’s also on Barry Estabrook’s Five Things I Will Not Eat list.)

But even more surprising than one restaurant’s decision to flaunt a bad ecological choice, is the many pounds of bluefin that are currently going to waste in the Gulf of Mexico.

Travelling at speeds of 25 miles per hour, and diving 4,000 feet at a time, these ultra-streamlined, muscular fish are in a class by themselves. And, thanks to demand for honmaguro sashimi in Japan, bluefin is both wildly expensive and badly threatened. (In the case of the Western Atlantic bluefin, stocks have declined by 64 percent since 1970.)

In other words, it’s an incredibly precious food. And yet, says Thomas Wheatley, an oceans campaigner at the Pew Charitable Trusts, bluefin bycatch often goes overboard–to the order of about 100 metric tons (or 220,000 pounds) a year. That’s a lot of sashimi.

“Essentially there’s waste written into the regulations,” says Wheatley, who has been working to raise awareness about this loophole for several years.

Every Spring, after traversing most of the Atlantic Ocean, the Western Atlantic bluefin returns to the Gulf, the only place they are known to spawn. Technically, it’s illegal to catch bluefin, but fishermen put down longlines, which catch many fish at a time on baited hooks arranged at intervals along a single line. And the results are disastrous for bluefin stocks.

“They’re inadvertently catching bluefin with longlines, while trying to catch yellowtail and swordfish,” says Wheatley. “But they can only keep three bluefin–beyond that, if it comes up dead, they have to throw it overboard.”

According to Shana Miller, the Global Tuna Conservation Project director at the Oceans Foundation and an adviser to Pew, “Over 20 percent of U.S. tuna mortality in 2012 was discards.” But that number doesn’t include the fish released alive (many of whom Miller says will soon die anyway). This takes place within a population of only around 40,000 adult fish.

“Forty thousand sounds like a lot,” adds Miller, “but when you think about the entire North Atlantic, it’s nothing.”

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, proposed draft regulations last August that could help stop the waste, and they’re still accepting comments on the rules. For one, they’ve proposed that fishermen would be prohibited from using surface longlines from March through May in the northwest part of the Gulf.

That would be a start, says Pew. But Wheatley and others would like to see a ban on the gear throughout the entire Gulf during that time of year, as well as a shift toward more selective gear called greensticks, and more oversight of the longline fleet in the Gulf, which puts down around 30 miles of hooked lines at a time.

“NOAA knows that for fish as valuable as the bluefin, both to the ecosystem as well as the economy, to be wasted at all, is insane,” says Miller.

Even some of these proposed changes could give tuna in the Gulf a leg–or fin–up at a time when the fish has also suffered mightily in the wake of the BP oil spill.

A recent study from Stanford University, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), found that the nation’s largest oil spill may have harmed young tuna, whose floating embryos came into contact with oil on the surface of the Gulf, resulting in heart problems later in the fishes’ lives.

And while Gulf fishermen could suffer short-term loses under Pew’s proposed quotas, Wheatley sees it as a necessary, if difficult step. “We believe that if we put the fish first, the fishing communities will benefit in the long run,” he says.

All the News That’s Fit to Eat: Cheap Organics, Anti-GMO-Labeling Bill, and Milk Hormones

1. Walmart’s New Line of Organic Food will Undercut Big Brands (New York Times)

The big news this week was the new partnership between Walmart and Wild Oats, the former natural grocery store chain, which is rolling out a line of inexpensive organic products. Walmart only plans to carry the company’s shelf-stable pantry items for now, but the move could make a splash with both consumers and farmers. Read more

GRAS Out: Surprising Number of Unregulated Chemicals Found in Food

If you don’t recognize all the high-tech ingredients available in food and drinks these days, you’re not alone. Some of these new additions—such as glucosamine hydrochloride, gamma-amino butyric acid (GABA), or soy isoflavone extract—might show up in product marketing, while others, such as milk protein concentrate, will not. But whether new food additives are being promoted or not, a report released this week by the Natural Resource Defense Council (NRDC) says their novelty isn’t the only reason we should be paying attention. Read more

Unwelcoming Committee: Online Grocer Faces Opposition in the South Bronx

Ordering food on the Internet can offer a reprieve from the drudgery of the grocery store. A few quick clicks and you have ingredients for dinner without getting in a car or lugging bags of food on a bus or train. But while it may seem like online services allow groceries to magically appear at our doorsteps, there are, in fact, still quite a few warehouses, refrigerators, and trucks involved. Read more

What if Everything You Knew About Grains Was Wrong?

First it was produce. Then the local food movement expanded to take on meat. Now it’s all about grains.

Nothing proves this point more than the packed room I found myself in last Sunday morning. At the point in the week when most people are unfurling their copy of the New York Times, or making their second leisurely café au lait, I filed in to the back of the dining area at Oliveto, a high-end Italian restaurant in Oakland, to join around 100 people gathered to discuss local grains. Read more

No-Kill Caviar: Can it Save an Endangered Species?

You don’t have to see a sturgeon in person to get a sense of just how monstrous and oddly majestic these ancient fish can be. But that’s exactly where Angela Köhler found herself a few years back–face to face with a giant, 30-year-old, 10-foot-long sturgeon that was being harvested for caviar.

The marine biologist and eco-toxicologist was in Iran for a conference, and she joined a tour visiting a sturgeon farm and caviar facility at the edge of the Caspian Sea.

“They brought in a huge female wild catch. They anesthetized it by a blow on the head, cut it open, and there were 7-8 kilos of caviar inside. They said, ‘this caviar is too mature to sell,’ so they discarded the whole fish, the caviar, everything,” Köhler recalls. Read more