Cultivating care for one of the ocean’s most majestic creatures

JENNIFER E. TELESCA

Planetary stewardship, I hope, is mindful of “it.” How we write about, talk about, teach about, scientifically render, develop policy for, and advocate on behalf of sea creatures matters at a time of mass extinction. Surely a living being cannot be “it.” Mere semantics this is not.

Simple in approach, trim in form, the tactic I adopt throughout my book, Red Gold: The Managed Extinction of the Giant Bluefin Tuna to feminize a fish in the singular by using the pronouns “she” and “her” is meant to contest and destabilize the commoditization of a living being. The once giant bluefin tuna is not a widget, nor is she quicksilver capital or a cog in a well-oiled machine. I forego the plural, such as “they” and “them,” and try to avoid when possible statistically-oriented, aggregate registers of speech, such as “species” and “population.” I do not want to reduce the bluefin to an abstract “class of being” (as Barbara Smuts describes in “Encounters with Animal Minds”). The feminized, singular pronoun is not meant to conjure up “Mother Nature” per se—although it could—but to remind readers that nonhuman nature under extractive capitalism, like women’s work, has long been kept off the balance sheet, her worth expunged in cost-benefit calculi. Sylvia Wynter reminds us that “scholars necessarily function as the grammarians of our order; that is, as ‘men and women’ who are well-versed” in how to arrange a body of facts within a framework consistent with their value system in the society in which they belong (Forum N.H.I.: Knowledge for the 21st Century, 55, emphasis in original).

This turn of phrase, however modest, is harder to adopt than you might first imagine.

My effort to unsettle common classifications through an ordinary linguistic device aims to call into question—and break free from—the dominant frameworks ensnaring marine policy. In the book, I share stories about the ways in which experts neutralize, disavow, ignore, and expunge the majesty of the Atlantic bluefin tuna, a fish called “giant” only a few decades ago. Regulators must learn to alienate themselves from her life-world, I show, to inventory how many are left for commodity empires, amplified in a lucrative “sushi economy” poised to contribute to a country’s economic growth (described in Sasha Issenberg’s book The Sushi Economy). The bluefin has become such a delicacy since the 1970s that industry insiders call her “red gold” for the exorbitant price her ruby-colored flesh now commands on the global market.

The world brought into being by “red gold” treats a fish above all else as commodity, as biological asset, as fish “stock” (a topic I explore elsewhere). This mode of relating to sea creatures has become commonsensical in fisheries management. The international organization that has been tasked by treaty, since 1969, to care for the bluefin and her kin as they swim beyond the jurisdiction of any one nation-state is a case in point. The International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT, pronounced EYE-cat) makes rules every year for marine life in the Atlantic basin in meetings inaccessible to journalists and the lay public. As an accredited ICCAT observer, I found in the field that delegates regulate the catch of the bluefin and her mates—swordfish, shark, albacore—not to conserve life in indispensable ocean ecologies but to protect the export markets of member states for sea power on the world stage. The rapid loss of big fish managed by ICCAT member states suggests that regulatory institutions must be seen as collaborative agents enabling the sixth mass extinction.

When I share stories about this diplomatic world, I have been consistently met with the same question: What should I eat? Is tilapia okay? Salmon? Canned tuna? Shrimp? Crab? Striking that people tend to think of themselves as consumers first, citizens second, as agents with a modicum of purchasing power most of all, as if freely choosing in a world of infinite goods. Evidence indicates that even eco-aware consumers buying filets in the seafood shop cannot be relieved of the harms of overfishing. Change in individual consumption practices is not enough on its own to stem the slaughter.

I worry when solutions root the problem of overfishing in consumer demand, rather than in the state-sponsored, well-financed, scientifically sanctioned, technologically sophisticated wholesale and retail trades coordinated systemically to profit from supplying global elites with fish, sometimes by the use of slave labor (documented by Ian Urbina in The Outlaw Ocean), feeding the myth of abundance, as if there is always another fish in the sea. As citizens making demands on their governments, we must awaken ourselves to imagine another course compelling nation-states acting on our behalf to protect planetary futures shared by all beings. In marine policy, the ocean is not an undivided, natural space, but a differentiated economic and political one.

I suspect readers familiar with the plight of the bluefin tuna may know about her shocking price at auction: US $3.1 million at Tokyo’s Tsukiji marketplace in January 2019. This price for just one of her Pacific kin does not reflect how much she costs the rest of the trading year. Yet, who among us knows of the bluefin’s awesome qualities? She defies common categories. She is warm-blooded. She has developed an enormous heart that propels her to dive to depths where the ocean is black and icy cold. She is one of the fastest fish at sea, darting cheetah-like underwater, clocking speeds rivaling a Porsche engine. If left in the sea to grow, the bluefin becomes the size of a horse and races in packs with mates as big across the open ocean—enjoying the longest migrations of any fish on the planet.

To know the wonder, the magic, the sight of this fish, like so many others, is to defy and resist a predatory regime of value in a regulatory culture narrowly preoccupied with profit, monetization, inventories, maximum yields, assets, costs, benefits for economic growth. A fish is not only some “thing” to be “saved,” like money compounding interest in a bank account. She is a being to be respected. She is a mystery to be celebrated and revered. She is a co-creator in this life .

As the protagonist of this book, the tremendous Atlantic bluefin tuna invites the reader to relate to life anew. Her quiet splendor reminds us that stewardship requires more touch, more esteem, more courtesy, more regard, more curiosity, more humility, more engagement, more shared attachments to enable movement along a path where creatures meet, as Donna Haraway has encouraged (When Species Meet). How to get to a place of deciding what is to be done may prove challenging but more transformational and rewarding in the end.


Jennifer E. Telesca is assistant professor of environmental justice in the Department of Social Science and Cultural Studies at Pratt Institute.


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