Tuna | Katherine Rundell | Granta


Katherine Rundell

Ernest Hemingway thrilled to the tuna: to their size, and their strength. They are big as a grizzly bear, and he loved them for it. Most reach around 1.8 metres, but the largest outliers of the largest species, the Atlantic bluefin, can be twice that, and more than six hundred kilograms. In 1922, watching a school of tuna hunt a run of sardines from the Spanish port of Vigo, Hemingway wrote in a newspaper dispatch about a ‘big tuna who breaks water with a boiling crash and . . . falls back into the water with the noise of a horse diving off a dock’. Their colossal heft allowed him to conceive of fishing for tuna as a heroic struggle, pure masculinity versus the ocean. He wrote,

. . . if you land a big tuna after a six-hour fight, fight him man against fish when your muscles are nauseated with the unceasing strain, and finally bring him alongside the boat, green-blue and silver in the lazy ocean, you will be purified and be able to enter unabashed into the presence of the very elder gods, and they will make you welcome.

It is the prose of a man who longs in his deepest heart to punch fish straight out of the sea. The tuna was the fish for him: had it been possible, he would have dressed it in boxing gloves, and a pair of tiny little shorts.

In Papuan mythology, the tuna is the father of the sun. In the story a woman, playing in the water with a vast tuna fish, felt it rub against her leg. Over time, the leg began to swell, until she cut open the swelling and from it came a baby. The child, Dudugera, ‘leg child’, was mocked by the other children, and became aggressive and angry, a fighter; fearing for his safety, his mother took him back to the water to return him to his father. The great tuna appeared, and took the boy in his mouth. But before he could be taken down into the water with his father, Dudugera told his mother to hide, because he was going to become the sun. Dudugera climbed into the sky, scorching the earth and everything on it. But to mitigate his destructive power, his mother tossed lime into the face of the sun as it rose one morning, which formed clouds, and protected the world from his ferocity. The tuna has its place in stories that are large and wild, and set at the beginning.

Their name means ‘dart along’; they are torpedoes in the water. Of the fifteen species, the ones you are most likely to find in tins in supermarkets are the skipjack, albacore and yellowfin, but it’s the Atlantic bluefin who is the grandest, the swiftest and largest. They are midnight-blue shading to silver on top, and shining white beneath. Swimming at speed, the bluefin’s top fins retract into their bodies, and they pelt at seventy kilometres an hour, faster than a great white shark. So perfectly evolved are they for powering through the ocean, Pentagon-funded scientists have used the tuna body-shape as a model for the US Navy’s underwater missiles. They look large enough for a child to fit inside, Jonah and the Whale-style. Atlantic bluefins swim in vast shoals of five hundred and more: to witness it, in all its speed and frothing water, is akin to seeing a migration of stampeding oceanic buffalo.

Like Hemingway’s ‘elder gods’, Atlantic bluefins do not acknowledge borders. Born in the Mediterranean Sea or the Gulf of Mexico, they grow up to hunt across the entirety of the Atlantic – shuttling from Miami to Iceland, Mauritania to Cuba, back and forth, inexhaustible. They can cross the Atlantic Ocean in just forty days, but to mate, they will commute in their great jostling eager school back to the waters near their birth spot. Exactly how they know where to go, we aren’t sure: their sense of smell is remarkable, and perhaps that allows them to build an olfactory map of the ocean – or they may use the stars, or the Earth’s magnetic field. We know only that, each mating season, they return for the ‘broadcast spawning’: large groups of males and females simultaneously release eggs and sperm into the water in a hopeful cascade and leave them to fare as best they can. The vast majority of the ten million eggs a female produces a year will never be fertilised, but those that are will hatch two days later, barely the size of an eyelash. It’s an unusually precarious beginning for a life that can last forty years, if we, or a very few species of sharks and toothed whales, don’t catch them first.

Unlike the vast majority of fish, tuna are warm-blooded. A unique blood vessel structure allows them to store the heat they generate from movement rather than losing it to the ocean, which means that they need not depend on the water around them for their body temperature. As a result, they’re as persistent as they are fast; their ability to tolerate extreme shifts in water temperature allows them to pursue their prey into the pitch-black icy depths a thousand metres down. As the water grows colder, other fish grow sluggish and hesitant; the tuna, following, can easily outstrip its groggy food. (This is not always helpful for those humans who eat tuna. The tuna’s diet of hundreds of smaller fish which they swallow whole – herring, sardines, mackerel, all of which have small amounts of mercury in their bodies – means that mercury accumulates in the tuna’s flesh over its lifetime, and is never expelled. As a rule of thumb for those who would avoid mercury poisoning: eat tinier fish, lower in the food chain.)

Our appetite for all forms of tuna goes back a very long way. We designed elaborate traps for them across Europe as early as the first century CE, making a maze of nets that catch them during their spawning period. But it was only in the aftermath of the Second World War, as our desire for the fish rocketed, that we became so deadly efficient at trawling for them, and so willing to destroy the ocean floor in our quest for them. Much of our fishing is on longlines – lines with baited hooks which stretch seventy kilometres along the ocean floor, catching fish indiscriminately, discarding anything unprofitable. Dolphins, who often swim alongside tuna, are collateral damage: three hundred thousand whales and dolphins are caught and discarded every year as ‘bycatch’ of industrial fishing. The water is full of corpses. (‘Dolphin safe’ labels on our tins are reckoned among marine scientists to mean next to nothing: the carnage takes place miles out at sea, where regulation cannot be constant, and inspectors can be bribed.) By some estimates, ninety per cent of the largest predatory fish – the megafauna, like the tuna and the shark and the swordfish with its bill long and sharp enough to kill a man – have already disappeared from the ocean. Our hunger is only growing. Kiyoshi Kimura, owner of the Sushizanmai sushi chain, paid $3.1 million for a 278-kilo Atlantic bluefin, a world record. It’s generally reckoned the bidding was artificially inflated to spark press attention and fish-based fanfare, but even so, the bluefin is one of the most valuable living things on the planet.

At the high-end Japanese restaurant chain Nobu – part owned by Robert de Niro – with its dazzle and soft lighting in Old Park Lane in London and LA, it is possible to buy bluefin tuna. The London restaurant menu at the time of writing includes a slimy little asterisk; ‘Bluefin tuna is an environmentally threatened species – please ask your server for an alternative’: sashimi with a sauce of cognitive dissonance, as if that were enough to absolve the restaurant of their part in the supply chain. Trevor Corson, a former fisherman and author of the book The Story of Sushi, is sceptical about why we fish it at all: most people cannot tell the difference, in a blind taste, between bluefin and yellowfin. For many diners at Nobu, though, the asterisk is presumably not so much a deterrent as a victory flag: it’s their scarcity that makes eating them so visceral a thrill. In the fifteenth century, Lorenzo de’ Medici would from time to time turn Piazza della Signoria in Florence into a hunting field. A host of exotic animals would be collected, and unleashed in the square in order to be massacred. It’s a similar impulse in Nobu: devouring something rare.

Our Medici-esque edge has set them on the road to their end. The Mitsubishi conglomerate controls a forty per cent share of the world market in bluefin tuna; they are freezing and hoarding huge stocks of the fish every year. While they claim this is to smooth supply on a year-to-year basis, conservationists believe they are acting in the expectation that in the event of the fish’s extinction in the wild, prices will skyrocket. Frozen in great stacks at –60oC by the same company who made my childhood cassette player, the bodies would be sold for astronomical prices.

It has a name, this uniquely vile game: it is called extinction speculation. It’s practised by those who collect Norwegian shark fin, rare bear bladders and rhino horn; men and women with hearts that sing along only to the song of money. There are collectors known to be building up huge piles of tiger pelts and vats of tiger bone wine. (The wine is made by soaking portions of a tiger’s skeleton in rice wine; it takes eight years to ferment, and can then be stored indefinitely.) If tigers go extinct in the wild, which is wholly possible by 2050, the value of these assets will soar. Already, progress is looking good for those who bet on obliteration: the narrow-striped South China tiger has not been seen in the wild since the 1980s; the Caspian tiger, which had the thickest, most luxuriant fur of all tiger subspecies, became extinct in the wild at the end of the twentieth century. A study found that, in the case of the rhinoceros, ‘profit-maximizing individuals may have an incentive to subsidize the slaughter of rhinos until the wild stock collapses’. Poachers have been paid to shoot even those wild rhinos without marketable horns, in order to hurry along the final death.

Extinction isn’t just happening because of our inertia: it’s incentive-driven. The tuna migrate across the vast blue world, and up above them the gamblers watch, keeping their stocks close and secret, and waiting for the end to come.


Image © Mishal Ibrahim


This is an essay from The Golden Mole and Other Living Treasures, available now from Faber & Faber.

Katherine Rundell

Katherine Rundell is a Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford. Her books for children have been translated into more than thirty languages and have won multiple awards. Rundell is also the author of adult books, including Sunday Times bestsellers Super-Infinite: The Transformations of John Donne and Why You Should Read Children’s Books, Even Though You Are So Old and Wise. She has written for, among others, the London Review of Books, the Times Literary Supplement, the New York Review of Books and the New York Times: mostly about books and animals, though sometimes about night climbing and tightrope walking.

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