Tuna: A Love Story
By Richard Ellis
Knopf; 319 pages; $26.95
Reviewed by Christine Thomas
Published in the Miami Herald
Just when you thought eating organic was your primary food dilemma, Richard Ellis’ new book “Tuna: A Love Story” inspires another: whether to eat fish at all. An encyclopedic documentary of the Thunnus thynnus, or Bluefin tuna, Ellis’ narrative explains all you wanted to know (and much you wished you didn’t) about these critically endangered “jet fighters of the sea,” much loved and eaten around the globe.
After condensing scientific reports and histories into a narrative accessible to those who don’t “happen to be an ichthyologist, a nutritionist, a chemist, or a fisheries biologist,” Ellis facilitates understanding about Bluefin migratory routes, fishing for sport as opposed to commercial fisheries (including trap fishing, long lining, and purse seining), the global tuna industry, mercury levels in tuna (and the animals and people who eat them), how tuna farming increases pressure on commercial fishing, and the impact of Japan’s annual 60,000-ton Bluefin import on the species’ “single, oceanwide metapopulation.”
Some points are provocative and engaging, especially in the book’s early chapters, revealing a more intimate portrait of the hot-blooded, mammal-like Bluefin. Perhaps most shocking is the unflinching exploration of tuna ranching, where younger fish are captured and transferred to open-ocean pens, fed twice a day until sizeable enough to slaughter and sell to the Japanese. Ellis unhesitatingly and frequently criticizes the Japanese, who have to date paid a record $173,600 for a single Bluefin, not only for the country’s tuna addiction—matched only by that of the United States—but their flagrant abuse of fishing restrictions and quotas.
The narrative’s sheer comprehensiveness is impressive, and such important information about the tuna’s dire condition is reason enough to keep reading, but much of the book is mired in Ellis’ earnest attempt to juggle facts and statistics, hampered by copious redundancies and a repetitive, spiral structure. Quotes from outside sources, like those by author and conservationist Carl Safina, often threaten to outshine Ellis, and he and the book are only at their best during the narration of events, like Ellis’ visit to Tokyo’s Tsukiji market, when evocative visual description breathes life into the prose.
“Tuna” never develops into an eloquent discourse about saving and not dining on the Bluefin—even Ellis still eats it—but rather a concrete weight of proof that there is a global crisis. But while the book is packed with problems it’s painfully short on solutions—not because Ellis doesn’t point out possibilities but because “[s]olutions to the problem of overfishing are painfully obvious but very difficult to implement.” A tone of resignation about the Bluefin’s imminent extinction permeates the book, and ultimately positions it as a last hope to impart knowledge about the fish the world loves to eat, so that when it disappears from the sea we can remember it well.
Because, as Ellis attempts to remind us, “once the fish are gone, you cannot make any more.” And we are dangerously close to eating the last of this species, hunting it as we once did the buffalo.