‘Tuna: A Love Story,’ by Richard Ellis


A Love Story

Richard Ellis

Alfred A. Knopf: 336 pp., $26.95

In this age of abundant information, Richard Ellis proves that there is still more of it, boatloads more, to be harvested from our troubled oceans. In “Tuna,” one foreboding fact is heaped on another, interspersed with snippets of sorrowful detail, all pointing to -- where else? -- the brink.

But what are we to do with this information, this sea of particulars about bad times getting worse out beyond the beach where the purse-seiners and long-liners and trophy sportsmen and harpooners hunt for fish individually worth more than a Porsche?

Alas, this is not an easy matter to discern -- not for us, not for our nation, not for the planet’s ever-expanding human population. Not for Ellis either.


He subtitles this book “A Love Story.” The words reflect his feelings for these mighty blue-water creatures -- the bluefin, bigeye, skipjack, albacore and yellowfin. But a more accurate description of this volume would be, “Tuna: Another Overfishing Tragedy.” Or maybe just “Goodbye, Old Friend.”

I am not a fan of these kinds of books. They add to the day’s gloom, and they reinforce our sense of helplessness. I do admire Ellis’ enthusiasm for the mega creatures of our oceans. A researcher and painter, he knows his stuff. And this is only the latest in his collection of information-rich, gee-whiz books on the marine world.

But learning that tuna spawn only in 75- to 79-degree water does not make it any more inviting to plunge into the lurid story of their impending demise.

The futility of this journalistic approach can be illustrated in a visit to an elementary school. By the time students reach third grade, or maybe fourth, they have a pretty fair grasp of what’s up in the world: Our planet is getting hotter by the year; resources are lagging behind demand; we’re cutting down the forests; the air is toxic; animals are going extinct; and the oceans are sick.

Young people wear appropriately long faces as they describe matters. And they know whom to blame. But ask them what they want when they grow up and they brighten: They want the latest fancy clothes, sprawling houses, diamond studs, limos, private jets, glamorous parties, wealth and fame.

In other words, they want the unsustainable consumptive lifestyle that dooms the tuna (or substitute your favorite alternative, the shark, the wolf, the tiger, breathable air, glaciers etc.).

Yes, I generalize. But the trend is apparent enough. And just as apparent, these young people need -- I need, we all need -- an alternative well of satisfaction beyond the charms of acquiring more things faster in the hope that technology (or faith) will somehow make it OK for 6 billion of us to want a sushi dinner tonight, beginning with a spicy tuna roll. The spark of imagination required to see a different human trajectory continues to elude our contemporary naturalist writers. I don’t spare myself.

Knowing the dimensions of a problem does not itself lead to a remedy, and by now we shouldn’t pretend otherwise. We can be shocked only so often by the magnitude of our woes, then we grow numb.

On the other hand, if Ellis is measured only by contemporary journalistic standards, rather than mine, “Tuna” can be fairly described as yeoman’s work in the familiar genre of ecological reportage. The reasoning here is that the pillage of land and animals should not pass without the story being told in all its unnerving detail.

Some facts that Ellis nets are fascinating: A sushi dinner for two can cost $1,102.74 if you have a liberal expense account. Many are instantly forgettable: The catch of skipjack in 2002 was 2,076,000 tons.

But it all boils down to this -- wild tuna can “out eat, outgrow, outswim, outdive, and outmigrate any other fish in the sea.” But to save these fish, they must be transformed into domestic, farm-reared, penned-in, misbegotten, flabby, disease-prone chunks of swimming meat that can utilize none of their glorious abilities -- something the author cannot tolerate. If you want to argue the point about where industrialized farming leads, you don’t have to go to sea. Just take a peek at the ghoulish horrors inflicted on chickens in a modern egg ranch

In his summation, Ellis marshals the words of a pair of farsighted writers to help make the case that any forward motion on behalf of the oceans must begin with fundamental change in our regard for animals themselves.

He quotes naturalist Henry Beston from the seminal 1928 book, “The Outermost House.” Beston writes, “We need another and wiser and perhaps more mystical concept of animals.” Ellis also draws from speechwriter Matthew Scully’s influential 2002 book, “Dominion.” Scully recognizes that “our society has turned its gaze away from animals, and countenanced a shameful climate of exploitation and cruelty toward them.”

If only there is time. *

John Balzar, formerly a staff writer and columnist for The Times, is senior vice president of communications at the Humane Society of the United States and author of “Yukon Alone.”