Chefs with Issues: The trouble with tuna
April 25th, 2012
04:30 PM ET
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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.

I am a chef and a food writer. I've also worked in food television for Martha Stewart, Bobby Flay and Discovery Channel's "Epicurious." I understand the importance of TV ratings, but I also care about the food I prepare and the food I eat. I work to educate my students and the readers of my books and articles about responsible and sustainable food.

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.

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soundoff (16 Responses)
  1. Ann

    I've been trying to eat more fish both for health reasons and because I don't like what I hear about some factory farming practices. Sometimes it gets complicated trying to decide what's the right thing to eat!

    Problem is, companies use these tactics because it's cheaper for them to fish that way. If it costs them more, it's also going to cost us more, and fish is already pretty expensive. Still, it's worth it to do the right thing.

    January 10, 2014 at 9:46 am |
  2. ??????

    This publish was extremely properly written, and in addition, it contains a number of beneficial information. I enjoyed the specialist way using words these kinds of submit. You have this easy will comprehend. ??????

    June 25, 2013 at 2:07 am |
  3. PTD

    Simple solution. If a restaurant or grocer can't tell you where their fish is from and how it was caught, don't buy from them. If they can tell you, make an attempt to understand the fisheries management of the region/species as well as the pros and cons of the fishing method (and don't just rely on one source). Next, enjoy a delicious and healthy meal as an educated consumer (however, buyer beware:

    Also, please note the high price of the "one bluefin" that is often quoted has nothing to do with the status of stocks and is often taken out of context and highly misleading::

    April 30, 2012 at 3:38 pm |
  4. hungry with a conscience

    Thanks Virginia, I really enjoyed this piece. And kudos to you for writing it, even though you received some flak (to put it gently) in the process. You got courage girl!

    April 27, 2012 at 6:05 pm |
  5. bs1

    Don't mess with my sashimi or sushi...

    April 26, 2012 at 7:00 pm |
  6. Rosey Goodman

    When I was camping on the beach at Mazunte, Oaxaca it was not uncommon to see with the naked eye Japanese Trawlers replete with helicopter support to spot the schools of tuna. The Mexican navy could never catch up with these guys.

    Like the author I too love Toro but I am also aware as to how finite this food supply is becoming. I

    April 26, 2012 at 6:31 pm |
  7. Eco Ocean

    Great post. I doubt the people in Nat Geo's church are there for the sermon. Nat Geo's tuna show feels like Nat Geo jumping the shark, and all that conservation stuff on their site looks like greenwashing (or bluewashing or covering their butt). It's the last things healthy oceans need. But I am more cynical maybe - I just don't see ppl looking past the bloodlust and excitement to see the conservation message. Looks like they're trying for some of the dollars around Discovery's Shark Week, which should be boycotted.

    April 26, 2012 at 1:01 pm |
  8. aquaken

    Thanks, Virginia, for exploring a complex issue in such compassionate, personal terms. It's an important part of the dialogue that will get us to a future with healthy oceans, with rich ecosystems abundant in wildlife, as well as for their value to people who rely on seafood for protein and for their livelihood. - Ken Peterson, Communications Director, Monterey Bay Aquarium

    April 26, 2012 at 11:59 am |
  9. virginiawillis

    Want to thank everyone for their support and contribution to this lively dialogue.

    April 26, 2012 at 9:42 am |
    • JeffG

      Thank you for making the point that rod and reel fisherman are not the problem! If longlining and purse seining is not banned at least get rid of the spotter planes.

      April 26, 2012 at 1:46 pm |
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