The naturalist Sir David Attenborough calls her a “superfish”; the Nobel laureate Ernest Hemingway a “very elder god.” Imagine a critter the size of a horse swimming up and down the water column lightning-fast, like a cheetah, traversing thousands of miles in the open ocean in packs of kin. Maritime borders this fish knows not. Contrary to the dominant classification of her kind, she is warm-blooded. Her flesh is the color—and price—of rubies. She circulates, pound for pound, as the world’s most expensive—and volatile—tuna “stock” (Telesca 2017).1
Behold Atlantic bluefin tuna.
To impose order on creatures crossing national jurisdictions in the Atlantic Ocean and nearby seas—yellowfin, swordfish, porbeagle shark—parties to the treaty known as the International Convention for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) have agreed to act as their stewards. Voluntary participation in this regulatory agreement exemplifies what the legal writers Abram Chayes and Antonia Handler Chayes (1995) call the “new sovereignty,” which requires good standing in organizations for a member state’s recognition. In such face-to-face ritual encounters as ICCAT Commission meetings (see Telesca 2015), signatories claim migratory fish as their own through catch quotas. “Conserved” here, are not majestic living beings but future end commodities valued for the power their profitability confers on the world stage.
ICCAT’s bid to contain and regularize—to manipulate and exploit the value of nonhuman life on the high seas—invites fresh inquiry into sovereignty as a practice limiting survivability. To make, monetize, and divide the Atlantic into fungible assets, the ICCAT regime sets not price but quota to determine how scarce commercial fish can be by using the technoscientific protocols of “maximum sustainable yield.” How many tons of bluefin will member states legally export this year? To “secure the volume” (Elden 2013), ICCAT’s Contracting Parties exert their power by dividing the spoils allocated mostly to rich coastal states for commodity empires.
To understand this mode of statecraft, attention to multiplying forms of volatility is needed. The ocean is not a stable backdrop or passive air–sea interface (Bolster 2012) upon which human history has been written. Better to treat the ocean as a zone of life ever changing at magnitudes and scales, speeds and velocities, heights and depths (re)made and entangled in technocratic attempts at mastery and control.
The stakes could not be greater. The now endangered bluefin recedes still further under pressure from extractivism in “liquid modernity” (Bauman 2000). The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) in its Red List of Threatened Species reports that the number of Atlantic bluefin tuna has declined by 51 percent since ICCAT launched in 1969. This conservative estimate does not tally the loss of big fish. In the waters I know, off eastern Long Island, fishers no longer call the bluefin the “giant” as they did when I was a child.
The circulation and spatial reach of global fish "stocks" instantiate volatility in offshore assets under financialized capitalism. Like traders on Wall Street, tuna brokers monitor highs and lows recorded at auction in Japan. They speculate on how and when to price the sashimi market to maximize profit in any environment, even when “stocks” decline. ICCAT ensures not the perpetuity of marine titans, but options for member states willing to accept harvesting risks modeled in assessments that measure fluctuation in itinerant bulk fish.
“Volatility has become the centerpiece of modern risk management,” Edward LiPuma and Benjamin Lee (2004, 142) write. Such volatility permeates the next frontier of fish extraction: the tuna farms regulated by ICCAT member states. Today fishers bring—alive—more than half of the bluefin caught in the Mediterranean to pens anchored to the sea floor. Towed for leagues at slow speed to avoid excessive mortality, the bluefin circle indefinitely in cages, fed twice daily, weather permitting.
On the coast of Spain I observed Captain Tony direct “harvest” by the dozen. Twelve months a year he tallies orders from overseas by wireless earpiece, like an inventory control specialist at a floating warehouse. Purse seiners—vessels equipped with large nets that encircle schools of fish—had captured these bluefin the previous year at what is known as la banca, near the Balearic Islands, for potential buyers in London, New York and Tokyo. Armed men kept watch to protect the investment these creatures represented.
Divers rotated tanks to breathe underwater for hours in scuba gear as they slaughtered moving targets weighing sixty to one hundred kilos. In calm or choppy seas, sharpshooters—some former military men—killed the fish by a bullet to the head. Bluefin became immobile from the high-velocity projectile fired underwater. Death must be quick, lest the animal’s muscles produce lactic acid from panic-induced thrashing, which tastes metallic to the connoisseur. But before deckhands sent the animal to frigid holds to lock in freshness, independent inspectors hustled to count, measure the length, and determine the sex of the bluefin as “control measures” for ICCAT reports.
Onshore near the saltwater pens, a nuclear power plant remains active in times of extinction. It was not quantified as a risk factor in ICCAT “stock” assessments. In this exterminative time-space, the very elder gods were dead.
I am grateful to Peter Dimock and Robert Wosnitzer for comments on this piece.
1. To problematize technocratic modes of relating to sea creatures, this post draws attention to the way that language obscures and normalizes dominant values by placing words such as “stock” in quotation marks.
Bauman, Zygmunt. 2000. Liquid Modernity. Malden, Mass.: Polity Press.
Bolster, W. Jeffrey. 2012. The Mortal Sea: Fishing the Atlantic in the Age of Sail. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.
Chayes, Abram, and Antonia Handler Chayes. 1995. The New Sovereignty: Compliance with International Regulatory Agreements. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.
Elden, Stuart. 2013. “Secure the Volume: Vertical Geographies and the Depth of Power.” Political Geography 34: 35–51.
LiPuma, Edward, and Benjamin Lee. 2004. Financial Derivatives and the Globalization of Risk. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.
Telesca, Jennifer E. 2015. “Consensus for Whom? Gaming the Market for Atlantic Bluefin Tuna through the Empire of Bureaucracy.” Cambridge Journal of Anthropology 33: 49–64.
_____. 2017. “Accounting for Loss in Fish Stocks: A Word on Life as Biological Asset.” Environment and Society 8: 144–60.