Popular tuna are over-fished, in danger of extinction

Text and Photos by Henrylito D. Tacio

Davao City, 8 December 2009. The tuna capital of the Philippines – that is how General Santos City is known these days.  In fact, every first week of September, the people celebrate the Tuna Festival.  “It’s our way of honoring the fish that drives our economy,” says Gregory Dominic “Jing” Velos, a staffer of the City Economic Management and Cooperative Development.  “Aside from the much awaited Tuna Parade, there are also various activities that feature different processed tuna products and food menus around the city.”

The yellowfin tuna is now the target.

Tucked in the mouth of the Sarangani Bay on the southern edge of Mindanao, General Santos used to be a backward fishing port before foreign buyers discovered the high quality and quantity of the tuna catch in the 1970s. A 20-year boom followed, with major canneries and export markets to Europe and the United States established.

Today, the tuna industry contributes about 60 percent to the economy of the city, generating employment for nearly 100,000 people.  Average daily storage capacity of tuna has topped 750 metric tons.  So much so that in 1999, the government, with official development assistance from Japan, built a 36-hectare General Santos Fish Port Complex that is now the country’s second largest – after Navotas.

“What makes General Santos unique is that the city is near to tuna-rich fishing grounds like Moro Gulf, Sulu Sea, Mindanao Sea and adjacent Celebes Sea,” explains Rienje B. Andrada, a fish port staff member.  “We have fair weather zone which is not normally visited by devastating typhoons or seasonal adverse weather patterns.”

Currently, 200 to 250 metric tons of captured tuna and tuna-like fishes are unloaded each day at the fish port, according to Andrada.   These are delivered to three major destinations: the canneries, the processors/exporters, and the local market catering the local consumers.  Canned markets include Europe and North America. Locally, fresh tuna are distributed to neighboring cities of Davao, Bukidnon, Cagayan de Oro, Surigao, and South Cotabato.

Tunas are migratory oceanic fishes, which are capable of attaining large sizes.  They also include tuna-like species such as billfish, swordfish, and marlin.  Tunas are fast swimmers – they have been clocked at 70 kilometers per hour – and include several warm-blooded species. 

Unlike most fish, which have white flesh, tuna flesh is pink to dark red, which could explain their odd nickname, “rose of the sea.” The red coloring reportedly comes from tuna muscle tissue’s greater quantities of myoglobin, an oxygen-binding molecule. Some of the larger species can raise their blood temperature above water temperature through muscular activity. This ability enables them to live in cooler waters and to survive in a wide range of ocean environments.

“Tunas are our top fishery exports in terms of value,” says Dr. Rafael D. Guerrero III, former executive director of the Philippine Council for Aquatic and Marine Research Development (PCAMRD).  In fact, the tuna industry is an important element in the country’s economy contributing over 100,000 direct jobs, notes a PCAMRD position paper.  Direct dependents include fishers, processors, canners, exporters and traders.

In the Philippines, twenty-one species have been recorded.  “But only six species are commercially important,” says Dr. Guerrero.  Also, experts classify two types of tunas: small and big.

Big or small, tuna is chased to the end.

Among the small tunas, which inhabit shallow waters, the most commercially important are the frigate tuna or “tulingan” (Auxis thazard), the eastern little tuna or “kawa-kawa” (Euthynnus affinis), and the bullet tuna (Auxis rochei).  Most of these tunas are consumed locally.

The important species among the big tunas, which can collected from deep waters, are the yellowfin tuna or “albacora” (Thunnus albacores), the big-eye tuna or “tambakol” (Thunnus obesus), and the skipjack or “gulyasan” (Katsuwonus petamis).  These are caught using commercial fishing boats with purse seines and ring nets. Small fishermen catch these species using hook and line.

The International Seafood Sustainability Foundation, which compiled a detailed scientific report on the state of global tuna stocks, reports: “Tunas are widely but sparsely distributed throughout the oceans of the world, generally in tropical and temperate waters between about 45 degrees north and south of the equator.”

“Tunas are caught throughout Philippine waters,” says Dr. Guerrero, “but the most productive fishing grounds are the Sulu Sea, Moro Gulf and waters extending to the North Celebes Sea.  Viable tuna fisheries also exist in waters off Western Negros, as well as Northwestern and Southern Luzon.”

General Santos City is known for the powerful swimmer yellowfin tuna, which rarely ventures into dirty and murky water, making it one of the safest fishes to eat. This species has a bright red flesh with meaty flavor.  It is so versatile that you can grill, bake, broil, or sauté it.  

Local treat, the kinilaw, with chunks of tuna.

Sashimi-grade tuna are exported to Japan, Canada, United States, Hong Kong, and Korea.  These are also sold to leading hotels in Metro Manila, Cebu and other parts of the country.  In the Philippines, tuna is the main ingredient of kinilaw.

Japan and the United States are the largest consumers of tuna, using about 36 percent and 31 percent, respectively, of the world’s total catch.  Tuna is highly prized in these two countries.  In January 2009, it was reported that 282 pound of bluefin tuna was sold for over $100,000 in Japan.  In the United States, 83% of tuna are eaten for lunch. 

In recent years, consumption of canned tuna in the US has declined somewhat since the “dolphin safe” controversy beginning in 1990.  Traditionally, tunas are caught for commercial use in large nets, many of which inadvertently capture dolphins as well.  

Because of the controversy, many commercial tuna companies around the world started taking steps to prevent dolphins from being caught along with their tuna, billing the result as “dolphin safe.”

Tuna is popular among humans because it does not have a strong fishy flavor, and consumers who do not like fish will often eat tuna.  Another thing: tuna is a good source of protein, vitamins, minerals and omega-3 fatty acids.  Several studies have found that omega-3 fatty acids can lower the risk of heart disease, improve the immune system, cure varied inflammatory conditions, ease the pain caused by arthritis, and help normalize blood pressure and cholesterol levels. 

As tuna has skyrocketed in popularity, many tuna species have become overfished and are in danger of extinction.  The big demand of Japanese sushi in the western world is putting pressure on tuna populations, turning them into endangered species.

In London, for instance, many sushi restaurants serve bluefin tuna, the world’s most popular fish after the cavier-producing sturgeon. The fatty underbelly of the fish, often on the menu as toro, has become Japan’s cavier and can command prices of up to US$100 a plate.

“I wouldn’t dream of eating tuna, especially bluefin tuna. It would be like eating a rhinoceros: it’s just as endangered,” commented Michael Gianni, oceans campaigner for Greenpeace International.

Climate change, caused by global warming, has compounded the problem.  The Earth’s rising temperature is driving tuna species out of the reach of fishermen. Experts surmised the warming temperature of water has been driving tuna species deeper underwater making it difficult for fishermen to catch them.

“Tunas are very mobile fish,” General Santos City Mayor Pedro Acharon was quoted as saying.  “They are also affected by the weather; if it becomes too hot on the surface they dive to depths that are difficult to reach, and if it is cool they normally surface, but that also means it is difficult to catch them because of storms and heavy rain.”

In a way, that’s true.  “I do not know what global warming is, but what I know is that it suddenly rains and the weather changes quickly,” said a fisherman who has traveled as far as 300 kilometers from the shores of General Santos City. “When that happens, the tuna swim deep and migrate to other parts, making it difficult for us to chase after them.