World - Tuna's Last Stand
Skipjack are the world’s most abundant tuna. They’re resilient, but can they outswim our demand for this pantry staple?
On the western fringes of Tuna Alley, the skipjack are about to fly.
As a fishing boat moves through the Molucca Sea, off the coast of the Indonesian island of Sulawesi, two crewmen fling shovelfuls of tiny baitfish overboard, stoking a foaming tuna feeding frenzy. More than 20 fishermen—barefoot, cigarettes clenched in teeth, and not a life jacket in sight—perch on the prow, whipping long, flexible fishing poles overhead. They hook and pull the tuna out of the water in graceful arcs, releasing the fish onto the deck of the boat and returning their barbless hooks to the ocean with a fluid, uninterrupted motion. Not a single line ever seems to get crossed as about 100 of the torpedo-shaped, purplish-blue–backed fish hit the deck every minute.
Catching one tuna at a time by a crew of individual fishers on a boat—referred to as “pole and line” on some canned-tuna labels—is about as sustainable as tuna fishing gets. It avoids the massive by-catch of sharks, turtles, and other sea creatures associated with many other tuna fisheries, and guarantees the fish are in immaculate condition for market, since they’re immediately put on ice.
After a day or two on the water, the boat will return to harbor at Bitung, a city in North Sulawesi. The tuna are destined for a local cannery, where they will be cleaned, cooked, canned, and ultimately shipped to supermarkets across the European Union and North America, the two largest markets for canned tuna in the world.