But ranching advocates, including Ted Dunn, cofounder and manager of Maricultura del Norte, the largest of the bluefin-producing companies in Ensenada, point out that their tuna would be eating sardines whether in cages or in the wild. Meanwhile, the industry’s economic boon to Baja is undeniable. Maricultura del Norte produces some 1200 tons of whole bluefin tuna each year, says Dunn. The company owns a pair of 200-foot-long tuna purse seiners, leases other vessels, and manages 16 tuna cages while employing as many as 200 people at a time. Moreover, Maricultura del Norte pays sardine fishermen three to five times what they would otherwise receive from bait buyers, fishmeal processors, and restaurant wholesalers.
However, overfishing of Pacific bluefin tuna could become a serious issue, say some biologists. With the Atlantic bluefin tuna fishery on the verge of collapse, more and more nations are turning their attention toward Pacific stocks of the fish. University of Rhode Island biologist Barry Costa-Pierce, who helped lead the 2008 industry report with Professor Zertuche-González, acknowledges that Pacific bluefin tuna could be looking at the same dire fate that has met its Atlantic counterpart, the population of which has diminished to an all-time low.
“We have reason to believe that the Pacific bluefin is on the same trajectory as Atlantic bluefin tuna,” said Costa-Pierce.
For one thing, the average bluefin tuna caught near Baja seems to be smaller today than in years prior. Mexican purse-seiner and sportfishing catch records show a decline in average individual fish size, from 115 pounds in 1995 to just 30 pounds in 2005.
Pacific sardine populations are believed to be in better shape. Although estimated sardine biomass along the U.S. west coast has declined slowly since 2000, according to Kevin Hill, research fishery biologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s La Jolla office, sardine abundance is known to wax and wane by natural oceanic cycles, and overfishing of Pacific sardines is not believed to be a concern. But with bluefin ranches as far away as Australia now purchasing up to two-thirds of the sardines landed along the United States’ west coast, availability issues could arise.
Maricultura’s Dunn would like to see a government-enforced cap placed on annual tuna harvest, as well as a minimum size limit, even though that wouldn’t prevent pre-spawners from entering the production line as they do now; the Baja bluefin industry subsists on sexually immature juveniles just one or two years old. Bluefin tuna become sexually viable at four or five. Dunn and his business partners would also like to see the federal government illegalize the canning of bluefin tuna, which still occurs on occasion, he says, when the tropical yellowfin tuna fleet strays northward into bluefin territory.
“When you have a fish that you can sell for $20 per pound, why put it in a can and make $1?” Dunn argues. “We want to make that illegal so that people can make more money by catching fewer tuna.”
That could benefit fishermen and help conserve tuna. Still, toro will continue to be served on platters by the ounce, and this is one fishery that will almost certainly never feed the poor. Just how long it can continue to feed the wealthy remains a matter unknown.