SYDNEY – Twenty meters below the waves in a roped pen, southern bluefin tuna shoot through the sea like muscular submarines.
At 5:30 a.m., Blaslov Fishing Co.’s tuna boat, the Nanci, leaves the South Australian fishing town of Port Lincoln, plowing into the Indian Ocean, where tuna is king.
Tuna is coveted in most fishing ports across the world because its red flesh demands big cash in Japan.
In the 12 months to last June, Japan imported 10,178 tons of southern bluefin tuna. At 2,000 yen per kg, it’s an exceptional export product.
Tuna is also king in the ocean because of its speed, agility and place at the top of the ocean’s predator scale and food chain.
Southern bluefin is king for the crew of the Nanci, too, because their wages, their families and their lives depend on its capture and delivery to the Japanese market.
So despite conservationists claiming there’s only between 2 percent and 5 percent of original southern bluefin stock left in the sea, not to mention the species being classified as critically endangered on the International Union for Conservation of Nature List in 1996, Port Lincoln is determined to ensure the sustainability of its prized resource.
Port Lincoln’s fishing system was invented in 1993 by local fisherman Dinko Lukin. Purse seines are used to net the tuna and to transfer them into underwater pens.
Fifty km off the South Australian coast, the Nanci anchors next to the tuna pen. The fish are riling the sea’s surface, acting like hungry goldfish, but the fishermen haven’t come to feed them today — they’ve come for the kill.
Harvesting tuna is a factory-line process and a bloody affair. Divers in wet suits plunge into the pens and catch one tuna after another in their arms.
Pushing the tuna onto a ramp lowered into the pen, the next fisherman in line grabs the tuna’s gills, hauls it aboard and within a second it has a metal spike through its brain and another thin metal rod shoved down its backbone to still the nerves so the flesh remains tender. Then it’s gutted and dropped into ice-filled tanks.
Within 72 hours of the tuna leaving the water, it arrives at a Japanese fish market.
Tuna ideal for farming are between 2 and 4 years old and are caught anywhere from December to April, when they are plying the sea south of Australia.
At 10 to 12 years old, tuna begin to spawn and the older fish swim at greater depths and are not easily caught. This naturally imposed protection for the larger, breeding tuna is all part of the sustainability plan, explained David Ellis, 39, research manager at the Tuna Boat Owners Association in Port Lincoln.
“Fisheries worldwide say that humans can take out 20 percent every year of a fish species, and the species, if spawning fish are kept alive, can still support itself,” he claimed.
Ellis dismissed suggestions that Port Lincoln and other tuna farmers are driving the southern bluefin to extinction. “It’s in our best interests to manage the tuna industry,” he said. “We can’t be an industry that takes without putting something back.”
Lukin’s purse seine system meant that Port Lincoln was home to the world’s first tuna farming industry and because it guarantees South Australia a much needed new export industry, worth 260 million Australian dollars a year, it’s easy to see why Ellis is passionate about sustaining bluefin stocks.
And so confident are they of the industry, local tuna farming companies in Port Lincoln spend an average of A$20 million a year producing tuna for market, the main expenses being feed, staff, research, training and government costs.
Conservationists would like to see less or no southern bluefin taken from the ocean because they believe the tuna industry is not sustainable.
Michelle Grady, 37, Australian policy coordinator for the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society, believes tuna fishing companies “want to get in and have their share of the stock before the stock completely collapses.”
But she also knows that the southern bluefin industry is one of the biggest value earners for the country. “It’s the biggest game in town, and it’s really the only game in town,” she said with a sigh, but not with resignation.
After all, neither party denies tuna farming created the wealth of Port Lincoln — a town with more millionaires per capita than any other part of Australia.
Just over a decade ago, this booming fishing port where flashy apartments now crowd the harbor was once a sleepy, financially shaky town on South Australia’s Eyre Peninsula.
In the late 1980s, Port Lincoln’s tuna stocks were sharply declining. To put an end to overfishing, the government introduced quotas, which meant Australia could only take a certain amount of tuna from the sea every year.
A quota set in 1984 was slashed by 67 percent in 1988 to 5,265 tons, where it has remained ever since.
Fisherman can buy and sell quotas like stocks. Today, all quotas are owned, so the only way for someone to fish for tuna legally is to buy or lease a quota from a current owner.
Some Port Lincoln fishing companies farming tuna have other interests to reduce risk. Prawns, lobsters, pilchards, oysters and abalone are popular industries in town.
Of the 8,400 tons of tuna farmed in Port Lincoln every year, 95 percent is exported to Japan. Of the 12 tuna farming groups in Port Lincoln, many are going through tough times because of current low tuna prices on the Japanese market.
“We can’t expect it to be like Christmas every time just because we’ve had it so good in the past,” said Justin Nelligan, director of Blaslov Fishing. “We had it pretty damn good for years there and maybe that spoiled us.”
“Pretty damn good” is an understatement for the times when tuna prices in Japan were peaking. Today 1 kg of fresh tuna fetches 2,000 yen on the Japanese market, compared with the 3,000 yen it was worth in 2001. Today frozen tuna goes for 1,150 yen to 1,250 yen, compared with the 2,350 yen it got in 2001.
One reason for the dramatic price drops is the surplus of tuna being supplied to Japan by Mediterranean tuna farms, which saturated and crashed the market.
The changing face of Japanese society has also affected the tuna industry worldwide. The economic downturn put an end to extravagant expense budgets, and many upscale sushi restaurants closed. More Japanese are now cooking at home to save money and supermarkets are going straight to the source and buying tuna in bulk instead of going to wholesalers and paying high prices for quality tuna sold at auction.
Yet Ellis is also a firm believer in Port Lincoln’s superior tuna and has no doubt prices will rise again.