Chefs with Issues is a platform for chefs and farmers we love, fired up for causes about which they're passionate. Virginia Willis, a graduate of L'Academie de Cuisine and Ecole de Cuisine LaVarenne, is the author of "Bon Appétit, Y’all" and "Basic to Brilliant, Y'all."
I opened up a veritable bucket of bait, not a mere can of worms, back in January with my blog post titled "Wicked Tuna: A Deal with the Devil."
"Wicked Tuna" is a reality series that premiered April 1 on the National Geographic Channel. It follows the lives of bluefin tuna fishermen in Gloucester, Massachusetts, and is produced by the same folks that produce the hit TV shows "Dirty Jobs" and "Swamp Loggers."
By many accounts, including the National Geographic website, bluefin tuna are overfished. This is where I find a huge disconnect with the National Geographic channel hosting a show about Atlantic bluefin tuna fishing.
The Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch urges consumers to "avoid" all bluefin tuna, referencing the near collapse of bluefin populations worldwide. So, I gave up bluefin tuna, including toro, its deliciously sensual and fatty belly. Toro is one of the most amazing things you could ever put in your mouth, but to me it's not worth it.
The responses in agreement with my issue with National Geographic featuring a show about bluefin tuna fishing were overwhelming, but I quickly found myself in deep water with a bunch of fishermen wanting to pretty much cut me up for bait. My post was picked up in the media, which also put me in the very curious position of receiving a Facebook message on a Sunday night from Betty Hudson, the EVP of communications for the National Geographic Society.
Money makes things complicated, and tuna is big money. Earlier this year, one fish sold for a record $736,000. Television is also big money. Thirty percent of the National Geographic Channel is owned by the National Geographic Society, and nearly 70% by Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation.
Even though I have been cussed at and told to "shut my mouth b*tch," I don't consider the fishermen the bad guys. They're living within the law, trying to feed their kids, doing what their fathers and their fathers before them did.
Tuna fishing is regulated by the ICCAT, the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tuna. By some accounts, however, ICCAT repeatedly hasn't listened to the advice of their own scientists.
The deal is: there's fishing, and then there's fishing. The guys that are on "Wicked Tuna" are rod and reel fishermen. That's just what it sounds like: a man with a rod, a reel and a boat.
That's not what has caused overfishing with bluefin tuna.
Longline fishing is a commercial method of fishing in which a line extends from the boat for one mile to as long as 62 miles. The line is buoyed and every hundred or so feet, there is a secondary line attached extending down. This secondary line is hooked and baited. Not just tuna are caught; so are sharks, sea turtles and sea birds. There's a lot of bycatch that is simply discarded, but the greatest impact is the amount of tuna that can be caught. Essentially, we're eating out of the ocean like it's a Las Vegas buffet.
Purse seiners, on the other hand, are the most effective vessels to catch fish near the surface. The fish are corralled, then the bottom of the net is closed underneath the fish. The most important part of the fishing operation is searching for the fish. Sophisticated electronics are often used to search and track, and large vessels often have observation towers and helicopter landing decks. It's hardcore - and it's all legal.
Honestly, I think National Geographic was caught off guard, but that's no excuse. It's their name, their brand. Carl Safina of Blue Ocean's Institute wrote an intense piece about the National Geographic "race to the bottom," then was quickly called into headquarters discuss the situation with the powers that be. His follow-up post was more mild-mannered: he seems to want to give National Geographic a chance, but also hold them to their word.
They have built a content-rich website to promote conservation and educate viewers about bluefin tuna. National Geographic's rationale is that documentaries and traditional programming simply aren't working, and hope to educate viewers with this unusual approach.
Betty Hudson, EVP of the National Geographic Society sagely said, "You can't save souls in an empty church."
Yes ma'am, I agree. But, just because it's legal doesn't mean it's right.