Bookshelf: Tuna

Tuna: Love, Death and Mercury – Richard Ellis


I’ve been on a bit of a Richard Ellis binge of late – he’s the man who wrote a super book on great white sharks that started me and Tony off on our learning curve about those creatures.

In this book Ellis tackles the tuna – focusing on the bluefin, but also covering yellowfin, skipjack and albacore. These fish are magnificent – breathtakingly so – and grow (when left in peace) to the size of compact cars. They can swim at incredible speeds for sustained periods of time, and are considered the pinnacle of piscine beauty, economy of form, and utility.

Unfortunately their meat is prized to a manic extent by the inhabitants of Japan, and to an increasing degree by the rest of the world’s sushi-loving inhabitants. This has led to disastrous overfishing, and, in the case of Japan and France, blatant disregard for the quotas set by ICCAT, the laughable regulatory body that has so far demonstrated astonishing incompetence and corruption in the management of the stocks of this glorious fish.

Ellis covers tuna biology, ranching (like farming except that instead of spawning, juvenile tuna are captured and fattened before slaughter for market – as seen in Tuna Wranglers), sport fishing (repugnant), commercial fishing, and everything in between. This is a fascinating and extremely comprehensive book. The photographs of anglers with their tuna are both incredible – a 2 metre long tuna is a thing of beauty – and tragic. Hunting a wild creature for sport – whether with a rod and reel, a rifle or any other weapon – to me represents the nadir of human nature and I cannot respect or condone it.

In the concluding chapters Ellis deals with the issue of mercury in tuna meat. Expelled into the atmosphere by human industrial activity (particularly by coal fired power stations which can release of the order of 100 tons per year), mercury is ingested by bacteria in the ocean, transformed into the toxic methylmercury, and makes its way up the food chain. Large, long-lived top predators end up with the most mercury in their bodies. Ellis cites several examples of individuals who took up diets high in tinned or fresh tuna and sustained mercury poisoning, the damage from which can be irreversible.

The book is available here if you’re in South Africa, otherwise here. If you want to read it on your Kindle, go here. It’s a cracking good read and will put you off eating tuna – whether for your own health or for the fish populations’ – for life.

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Lapsed mathematician, creator of order, formulator of hypotheses. Lover of the ocean, being outdoors, the bush, reading, photography, travelling (especially in Africa) and road trips.

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