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GIANT TUNA: “How A Tuna Shaped European History”

The Dutch journalist Steven Adolf has recently translated his personal interest and passion over the Mediterranean bluefin tuna history into a book called De Reuzentonijn, which translated to the English language would be “The Giant Tuna”.

From the Phoenicians to the Spanish Almadraba, Adolf correlates bluefin fishing with several episodes in the economical and social development of Western Europe.

Even though there’s no prediction of when an English version will be available, the book has received a lot of attention from the media and it has been considered, in the Netherlands. the front door to a broader reality: the overfishing of major tuna species in several parts of the world. What was your motivation to write about the bluefin fishery in the Mediterranean?

Steven Adolf: My personal motivation is the fact that I’ve been living in Spain for 16 years, and as you know, the country has a very rich culture of eating fish. Since I like eating fish myself, when I first came here I went to the market and that was the first time I saw the bluefin tuna. It was such an enormous piece of meat! I was surprised that such big fish was still sold on the market and caught in European waters, on the Spanish coast. In the following year, I went to the Almadraba in the southern coast of Spain and that was an amazing experience for several reasons. First, it was a great spectacle to see this big fish being caught by a group of 60-70 men, who jumped to the nets and started dragging the tuna inside the boats. It was like a theater, very impressive. In addition, you were directly in touch with our ancestors, the Phoenicians.

In your book you went back thousands of years in history.

Yes, that really fascinated me. What I was seeing in Almadraba was more or less the same scene you could have seen almost 3.000 years ago. So I thought that this subject would be something worth preserving, not only because bluefin tuna is a tasteful fish, but it’s also part of a millenary tradition. That was my major motivation; however, later on it became clear that there was a lot to do about bluefin tuna conservation. Through the years I specialized myself in tuna and wrote this book.

Besides being a millenary activity, what was the most interesting fact about bluefin fishing history in your opinion?

Well, I think the most interesting thing I discovered was the importance of the fish itself. It was probably the first fish to be caught in an industrial scale. It needed a lot of organization, which remains preserved until today. There were many Mediterranean cities dependable on the income from tuna fishing and we can still see these huge wells where they mix the tuna with salt to conserve it, in old archeological sites in south of Spain, north of Morocco. In addition, it was amazing to learn about the fortunes made over bluefin and which affected the whole economical and social development in the western Mediterranean. You had complete dynasties of very rich Spanish nobility to a point that one of its representatives, the Duke of Medina Sidonia, was the leader of the front that attacked Holland and England, for example. He was chosen because of his wealth based on tuna.

How did bluefin fishing follow historical events for so many years?
Bluefin was also of big importance to the Romans, to the Phoenicians before them. One of the reasons the Phoenicians came to Western Europe and brought civilization was the search for more tuna. It has a very big influence in our history.

Are fishermen nowadays aware of this past?

Yes, even up to today people are very conscious of the fact that they have such a rich history around tuna. If you talk to the fishermen in the Almadraba, you’ll notice they know stories about the Romans, they know about the dukes of Medina Sidonia, because they know it’s all part of their cultural heritage.

The second chapter in your book is entitled “War, Knowledge and Power”, why is that?

I chose that title to make clear that I’m describing this fishery not only from the biological point of view or by its importance to the environment. It was described as a tool still used in many power circles and responsible for many economical developments. What you can see is bluefin as the mean for power struggle throughout history and still is nowadays, if you consider all the purse-seiners fishing for it and the Japanese market. There’s a lot of money involved.

In your research, could you see the developments in sustainability awareness regarding bluefin through time?

Yes, and the lack of efficiency of the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) is well known and most of the Mediterranean fishermen see the organization as a joke. However, I think that they are becoming more conscious about the problem in the bluefin industry. You see in my book that fishermen still remember that there used to be bluefin tuna in the North Sea, which disappeared. Now they are able to see this economical misunderstanding of the fishing process. If you go on and on in a bigger fishing scale, in the long term, you will kill your own resource.

What do you mean by economical misunderstanding?

What is happening now in the Mediterranean is the massive over-capacity of the bluefin fleet, almost four times over the sustainable level. And it’s logical that if you have such fleet, boat owners will reach their quota within one or two trips What will they do with those expensive boats? How will they cover its costs? It’s of highest importance that at least the European Union would offer an attractive pay out for those fishermen who want to stop and destroy their boats. It’s important to remember that most of the fleet was constructed under European subsidize not so long ago.

Did you have the chance to talk to someone from the EU Fisheries Commission?

Yes, but this is not a political book. I just want to make people aware of the bluefin situation and how this process works. I grew up in the 70’s, so I’m part of the generation that could see the first images of the richness and beauty under in the oceans, and I’m afraid it will also be the last generation. Many things that Jacques Cousteau filmed are not there anymore. This radical change in such a short period of time is very frightening and I hope that my book makes people understand that without addressing the problem, this situation won’t change. It’s a political issue.

What feedback have you been getting about your book?

I was surprised with the amount of exposure my book had in the media. I think that maybe bluefin became the icon to a broader problem and people are very interested in learning about that. It’s a pleasant book, with a lot of interesting historical facts and some recipes, it’s not a graveyard story. From the industry point of view, bluefin tuna has a limited share of the market. Even though, I still think it’s worthy to learn about it; since in my opinion, bluefin should be considered as an icon for being such a good example to explain a much broader and complex issue, which can also affect all other tuna species.