03.10.12

National Geographic Revives Debate Over Imperiled Bluefin Tuna in New Show

Wicked Tuna, a new series on hunting the endangered fish, is a mashup of reality TV and conservation.

Gloucester, Mass., on the northeast tip of the Bay State, is one of the oldest fishing towns in the United States. It may also be the continent’s best departing point to find the hardest-to-catch fish on the planet. Those would be bluefin tuna, the highly-prized flesh used in upscale sushi, for which Japanese consumers will pay up to $10,000 for a single fish. Taken from icy waters, one can weigh as much as 800 pounds. Wrestling it into a bobbing boat takes more skill and coordination than riding an angry bull.

That’s the premise of Wicked Tuna, a show produced by National Geographic Channel that’s attracted both accolades and consternation before the series’ first episode airs on April 1. The reason is that the bluefin itself is currently listed as a threatened species by international conservation groups, which have imposed quotas to keep the fish from heading toward the whirlpool of extinction.

The show is a gripping mix of action and human drive, drawn from the reality-TV variety that splices mid-scene confessionals between tense vignettes. But at its core is a fierce debate over an imperiled species, long overfished and with populations in the eastern and western Atlantic now believed to be below the requisite biomass that would ensure the fish could spawn at sustainable levels. The most recent study on bluefin, published in December by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, found that populations across the North Atlantic had dropped to around 25 percent of what they were in 1950.

In some ways bluefin are the perfect species to pursue. “It’s hard to be opposed to the selective fishery for bluefin tuna,” says Lee Crockett, director of fishery policy with the Pew Environment Group. “They don’t have broader environmental impact. [People who catch them] don’t harm other wildlife, and they don’t damage the habitat.” Indeed, one of the most challenging parts of landing a catch is the fishermen’s low-tech approach: federal regulations put limits on industrial muscle, so deck hands mostly hunt the scaly behemoths with a basic—albeit durable—reel and rod.

Just because American fishing boats play by the rules, says Kilduff, doesn’t mean what they’re doing is good for the fish.

Yet a debate centers on just how much reality TV might champion hunters of a dwindling species. “There’s a lot of concern because they’re so overfished,” says Catherine Kilduff, a staff attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity. “To have a reality show that glorifies part of that train wreck is a big concern.” The problems facing bluefin are mainly caused by lax regulation overseas—European limits are often bypassed, according to a 2009 study from the Technical University of Denmark. In the U.S., strict government quotas limit the annual catch to 957 metric tons. But just because American fishing boats play by the rules, says Kilduff, doesn’t mean that what they’re doing is good for the fish. More than 80 percent of bluefin caught worldwide is consumed in Japan, but some wildlife groups fear the show’s intensity could spur interest in the lucrative flesh and increase U.S. demand.

National Geographic anticipated the critique early on when the show was green-lighted last summer. Executives with the organization say they wanted to revive the discussion about bluefin conservation by taking it beyond niche conservation conferences and into people’s living rooms. “We’re excited by the possibility that we might reach some segment of the population that has never thought about this issue, that has no clue about the challenges confronting bluefin tuna,” says Terry Garcia, who heads Geographic’s missions programs on energy, water, and biology around the world. Indeed, public service announcements from concerned scientists bookend the series’ commercial breaks. The channel also plans to air a documentary next month solely on the bluefin’s plight.

Of course good TV and good conservation aren’t always the same thing. But the hopeful link is apparent. Delegates from the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas, the global regulatory body that sets fishing limits, will meet in September in Madrid to assess ongoing population decline. Wider awareness of the problem, brought about by compelling TV, may indeed help bolster the agency’s recommendations for conservation.