Ethics on Your Plate: The Wicked Tuna Debate

On the surface, the hard-working fishermen of Gloucester – a thoroughly (well, mostly) New England town, accents and all – and the sushi bar patrons of Japan would seem to have very little in common.

Dive a little deeper, though, and there’s one major overlap: The bluefin tuna – a giant of a saltwater fish, prized for its sushi-quality flesh, that’s been plummeting in numbers worldwide since the 1950s. Gloucester fishermen are known for hooking the tuna, some of which can weight upwards of 1,000 pounds, by hand-held lines from the waters in and around George’s Bank, a famously fertile fishing ground in the North Atlantic. With bluefin numbers estimated at 17-33% of their Eisenhower-era stocks, however, there’s concern that bluefin are being seriously overfished.

So why is that bastion of all that is holy environmentally, The National Geographic Society, associating its name with a reality TV show that all but glamorizes the catching of bluefin? To raise awareness. Yep. Catch the fish, slaughter them, show them being sold and shipped to Japan, and TV viewers might — just might — become aware that those same fish are threatened with functional extinction.

Hard to believe? According to NatGeo itself, the Society’s executive vice-president for mission programs says he hopes that the show, called Wicked Tuna, will raise awareness about the bluefin’s chances for survival.

I was in favor of doing this show if we coupled it with a solid [conservation] message about what’s been going on with the bluefin. This is a complicated issue.said Terry Garcia

Make that “wicked complicated,” as Gloucester-ites would be wont to say.

Not your father’s National Geographic. But Obama ain’t Kennedy, either

A number of different people have taken NatGeo to task for producing Wicked Tuna – now in its second season on cable. Most of the concern centers on whether a once-respected organization has gotten away from some of its more basic principles. And whether its involvement in the bluefin issue might drive up consumer demand for an already rarefied product.

Miriam Goldstein, a blogger at, pulled few punches in her commentary earlier this year, summing up the issues as follows:

  • Given that bluefin are overfished to a point that the stocks won’t recover under what’s called “rebuilding quotas” (limiting the number and size of fish caught), it’s shocking that NatGeo would air a show about “killing off this badly damaged population”
  • NatGeo has loaded up Wicked Tuna’s web page with plenty of conservation-minded content – some of which Goldstein finds odd, such as an item that explains how the Gloucester fisherman talk about the benefits of fishing quotas. Goldstein’s reply: “THAT is a sentence that’s rarely been written! Gloucester is famous for its intense dislike of fisheries regulations, periodically hanging scientists and regulators (and themselves) in effigy to protest changes in fisheries management”
  • The Gloucester fishermen contend that bluefin fishing in U.S. waters is actually well-managed, and that the threats come from illegal fishing – as well as poorly managed fisheries in Europe. “The western population of bluefin off the east coast of the U.S. is dependent on the eastern population off the west coast of Europe,” writes Goldstein
  • A Pew Environment Group Study found that 141% more tuna was sold in 2010 than was permitted to be hauled in under the current quota
  • A considerable black market exists for bluefin. And earlier this year a bluefin tuna auctioned in Japan garnered a reported $736,000, translating into $1,238 per pound

Do ethics taste good?

Given all of that, Goldstein says, it’s difficult to know whether viewers of Wicked Tuna will engage in high-minded debate about fisheries regulation – or just begin salivating over a nice plate of bluefin sushi. She also makes the point that, since most restaurants don’t have a clue where their fish comes from, the bluefin being served could just as easily have come from a country like Spain (which apparently doesn’t regulate its fisheries well, either), and not from Massachusetts. So, who’s to step in and prevent a) customers from ordering it; or, b) restaurants from buying it through a wholesaler?

There’s also the idea that this particular fish is considered something of a specialty, even a rarity. Most people wouldn’t know a bluefin from a yellowfin. Nor would they likely know that next to none of the fish they’ve ever eaten were caught using hand lines, as the bluefin are. Say what you want about the boys from Gloucester. At least they’re fishing for and keeping only those specific fish that they’re targeting, rather than whatever shows up in a trawler net.

Really, though, Goldstein doesn’t have a specific axe to grind with the Gloucester fishermen – nearly all of whom on the show come across as decent, hard-working folk, respectful of the forces of nature that help them feed their families. And, in a follow-up post to her original story, she notes that a pair of well-regarded scientists disagreed with her take on NatGeo’s show. Both made the point that just getting people to listen to the topic of fish conservation/over-fishing was important. And to capture audience interest in an entertaining manner, as Wicked Tuna tries to do, was even better. People need to know where their food comes from, and whether it’s being harvested in an ethical and responsible manner.

In an odd way, though, that last point brings to mind an exchange on The Office, admittedly about as far on the other end of the reality spectrum as you can get from Wicked Tuna. One cubicle dweller is dressed down by HR because she allowed a customer to buy her a sirloin steak at a local chain restaurant. (She also allowed him to do a few other things, but let’s not let those get in the way of making a point.) Facing down the stern reproach of the HR officer, the character said only, “But…have you ever had sirloin steak?”

Along those same lines, it’s not difficult to imagine consumers of bluefin – on this side of the Atlantic or that — saying much the same thing.

Image via Stewart Butterfield / CC BY 2.0

Pierce Mattie

Pierce Mattie is a full-service marketing agency that interacts with consumers and key stakeholders at every stage of the journey. With a focus in beauty, health and wellness, we are immersed in the marketing landscape, able to powerfully communicate a brand’s point of difference to acquire and maintaining customers. The content team is obsessed with what's trending in the digital world, and how it intersects with consumer behavior. We are passionate about the changing landscape of the world, including how emergent technologies affect brand attachment, how diversity and inclusivity are critical to success, and where humans fit into the equation.

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