Tuesday, March 3, 2020

Book Review: 'Red Gold: The Managed Extinction of the Giant Bluefin Tuna' by Jennifer E. Telesca


How the sushi economy is engineering the extinction of the bluefin tuna

Fishers are thieves. They take from the oceans, and they hate it when someone else takes from them by, say, limiting their catch or preventing them from selling it. That's what Jennifer Telesca learned at a meeting of the international commission mandated to conserve the bluefin tuna. It quickly becomes clear the commission, ICCAT, is not there for the tuna at all. It is there for the processors. Red Gold is the exploration of this commission and its twisted methods. The bottom line: it has all but mandated the extinction of the bluefin tuna, while claiming to beneficially manage and restore it.

Allowed to age naturally, a bluefin tuna used to be a giant, weighing a ton. Throughout history, it was  known as the very elder god. Schools of bluefin tuna impeded the fleets of Alexander the Great. Today, a single full sized bluefin tuna will sell for several million dollars, if you can find one. That alone captures its decline.  

It has red flesh, because it is a warmbodied animal. It can regulate its body temperature, and plunge to the freezing depths of the ocean. It has an outsized heart that pumps so well the tuna can zip through oceans at 50 miles per hour. It routinely crosses the Atlantic in 40 days. This is a fish worth knowing about.

For centuries, it was respected, but not prized. Then after World War II, the MacArthur administration got the Japanese to start eating it in quantity. In the early 70s, Japan Airlines was suddenly able to transport them overnight from the the east coast of Canada. Until then, sports fishers would have their photo taken with some huge tuna hanging beside them. Then they just buried it. Suddenly, it became an overnight global industry, making sushi into the sushi economy.
ICCAT, the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tuna, is a product of the FAO, a branch of the UN. There are 53 such regional fishery bodies for ocean fish. They hold meetings, determine the catch for the coming year, and allocate it among countries.

The basic principle ICCAT operates by is called MSY - Maximum Sustainable Yield, invented and promoted to the UN by the USA. Not health of the species, shrinkage or growth from last year, or even fairness in the allocation system. It wants fishers to take as much as possible. It makes its decisions in secret, based on totally superficial data plugged into inadequate, faulty models, which it then uses to declare the scientific basis on which its decisions are supposedly made. Some years, it awards far more than even their report recommends. It is based on the absurd premise that there are large numbers of excess fish born every year, and taking them will make no difference. Of course, they have no idea how many extra fish there are, because 1) there aren't any, and 2) they don't have the ability to know. So they just blindly rake off vast tonnage anyway. Carry on regardless. At ICCAT, conserving means to preserve and expand export markets, Telesca says. From that twisted principle, there should be no shock at the dignified and diplomatic chaos that makes it happen.

Telesca divides the book into clear chapters. For example, she has gathered all her thoughts on nongovernmental organizations and the media in one place. There is an almost blow by blow description of an annual ICCAT meeting that shows all the pettiness, politics, maneuvering and handcuffing that ICCAT deserves to be known for. Sadly, despite all the media attention, bluefin tuna and ICCAT are essentially unknown. The Greenpeaces of the world have utterly failed to make them a worthy cause or household name. Endless editorial columns are instantly forgotten. The carnage continues, unabated.

What Telesca has discovered is nothing more than business as usual. All over the world regulatory bodies are made up of the businesses supposedly being regulated This includes safety standard-making bodies, healthcare, economic, you name it. Their aim is to actually profit more from regulation, and they do. No one should be surprised that the body regulating the bluefin tuna has been totally corrupted by the industries being "restricted". They lobby their governments, which then pressure the commission to ease off. Works every time. Tuna be damned.

Telesca is an ethnographer. She has attempted to simply report the details of what she witnessed going on, no more no less, she insists repeatedly. But it still reads like a condemnation of the process, deserving no respect for all the respectable people involved. They have been compromised, sidelined, and ignored in their efforts to do their jobs. Sounds like a bunch of places I have worked.

Unfortunately, Telesca is nothing if not longwinded. The Prologue and the Introduction alone run to 41 pages. Even the Acknowledgements run eight pages, mostly stories about her inspiration. A good academic, she loves the model of tell them what you're going to say, say it, and tell them what you've said. There is endless mention of what is coming up next or later. As for abbreviations, for the first two thirds of the book she uses both the acronym and the full name, every time. She also loves quotation marks. I don't think there is an instance of the word save without them. All these things serve to slow the reader down. There is no doubt in my mind the book could have shed 70 pages and still transmitted all her ideas, wishes, and facts.

Numerous times throughout, she claims not to be criticizing ICCAT. That is not her goal, and readers should not take it that way. Yet the book is written that way. Telesca is enormously passionate about this, and she can't help but show it. ICCAT is responsible for the disappearance of a very large and important species. There's no way around that. So although the facts are all important, the story in need of telling, and the implications for the Sixth Extinction terrifying, the book is confused and confusing, at Telesca's insistence. It's too bad, because as you can see, there's a lot of good information hidden in it.

Editor's note: This review has been published with the permission of David Wineberg. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right.