Photo: Tuna statue indicating the direction of the wind. Placed in different places along the ‘Costa de la Luz’ in 2013, when the first ‘Ruta del Atun’ took place.
Eating tuna, responsible or not?
This weekend is the 3rd edition of ‘Ruta del Atun” in Tarifa. 41 tapas bars serve their best tuna tapa for a little price. May and June is the month that the Bluefin Tuna migrates from the cold Atlantic Ocean to the warm waters of the Mediterranean in order to reproduce. The local fishermen take advantage of this maybe even largest tuna migratory on earth and drive the tuna into the orange funnel-shaped nets that you can see in Conil, Barbate, Zahara de los Atunes and Tarifa these months. At this time the tuna is considered at its fattiest best and it is made a celebration in Tarifa, and a few other places along the coast, with the Ruta del Atun. After all it’s Spain. Celebrations are routine. But what’s the buzz all about? Is it ok to eat, buy and support this tuna business?
The superquality of the bluefin in the Strait of Gibraltar is known around the world. It has made the demand from outside way higher than locally. Most of the tuna does not even touch shore. 90% of the tuna goes straight to Japan, (said to be) sold for up to 100 euro’s per kilo! The Japanese process the tuna directly at sea, taking the best parts, and then it’s off to sushi-land. The rest is sold at the local markets. It makes the fishing industry bigger than tourism in this region, many families being financially dependent on it. The tuna industry at the Costa de la Luz becomes part of Gastronomic tourism. Eateries, festivals, routes and tours are being organised around the tuna. Many people from the region come down south to try the atún rojo (the most red and ‘best’ part of the bluefin tuna). Also an opportunity to see what else Tarifa has to offer! In Barbate you even see busses with Japanese coming to this part of the world to learn about their delicatesse. Hopefully realizing they maybe should go for another sushi choice back home…
The Thunnus thynnus (bluefin tuna) is endangered. Being bigger than other tunas, it takes the bluefin tuna between four and eight years to reproduce. This is long and too many are caught before there have been babies. It is estimated that this tuna has declined 50% over the past three generation lengths. To balance the preservation of the fish, which is high up in the food chain, there’s a strict quota on what can be caught, when it can be caught and what size can be caught. Since the start of the bluefin tuna recovery plan in 2006, the Atlantic Blue fin tuna is on its revival! Looks like a good thing. Only now the problem seems to shift to the stocks of sardines and anchovy. They are disappearing from the Mediterranean, as they are being eaten by the bluefin tuna. So this year the EU raised the catching quota with 20%. The quota seems to be well kept and enforced here. I visited the Tarifa harbour this week and it was dead silent as the quota had been reached. Actually, in less than a week the entire Spanish bluefin tuna fleet caught the quota for the year! I’m wondering about the catching situation at international waters… There are no regulations in the open sea. Hopefully, there will be a law one day that fish can only be sold locally. The bluefin tuna is endangered and catching, freezing and transporting endangered fish to the other side of the world is just insane and definitely not sustainable. What to do? Maybe we indeed should just close the ocean?
The tuna is threatened, so is the traditional practice of Almadraba tuna fishing, an artisan Roman fishing method which after 3000 years still takes place, but only at 4 places the Costa de la Luz: Barbate, Conil, Zahara de los Atunes and Tarifa. La levantá de la Almadraba, is the most responsible way of catching the most desired tuna in the world. Boats come together making a circle enclosing the tuna. Only the strongest and largest fish is picked, the others are returned into the ocean. In Tarifa, only 1 Almadraba Atun, de la Virgin de la Luz (the patroness of Tarifa), is caught per season. That is something special to sustain.
So eating tuna, responsible or not?
There are better seafood choices to make. Tuna is not in abundance anymore. Do your research, check the local situation and if you cannot resist, have a tapa (small bite) instead of half a kilo tuna steak. If you are in a region where the supply of a species is naturally abundant or even threatening the ecosystem (like for example lionfish in the Americas), it’s ok. The tuna is not on that list. Every decision does make a difference. Where there is demand, supply will be found, on the short-term… Let’s do whatever we can to have it also in the long-term!
So take it easy on the tuna, so that in another 3000 years this Almadraba tradition is still celebrated!