Smooth-flowing distillation of scholarship about “the world’s best-loved fish.”
Ellis (Singing Whales and Flying Squid: The Discovery of Marine Life, 2006, etc.) has an authorial voice that’s easy on the ear and unpresumptuously authoritative. He takes readers through the many varieties of tuna: albacore, longtail, bigeye, blackfin, yellowfin, skipjack (not really a tuna, but the chicken-of-the-sea that fills many a light-meat tuna can) and the great, paradigmatic bluefin. Ranging as widely as the fish itself, Ellis covers tuna’s history as an item of catch (it was once scorned, ground up for its oil and for cat food), its lure for such sport fishermen as Zane Grey, its migratory patterns, metabolism and eyesight. He delves into the strangely fascinating canning process: Caught, frozen, thawed, gilled and gutted, the tuna is then frozen again, cut, precooked, cooled, skinned, canned, cooked again. The bluefin captures most of Ellis’s attention. Capable of living 30 years, speeding along at 55 miles per hour, weighing in at 1,500 pounds, this delicious, lordly fish is full of health-giving omega-3 fatty acids…and just a soupcon of mercury. It has provoked “the modern-day equivalent of the Dutch tulipmania” in high-end Japanese restaurants, where a two-ounce slice can command $75. But the bluefin is becoming rare due to overfishing. Its economic value is so high that its fate in the wild is nearly a foregone conclusion. That value may encourage tuna ranching, which could help protect brood stock but brings its own nest of troubles: interbreeding, parasites, disease, effluent pollution and gross inefficiency. (Twenty pounds of wild-fish feed produce one pound of tuna meat.) The future, Ellis suggests, lies in conservation, but he fears no one is listening to the convincing doomsday scenarios sketched by environmental groups.
An artful, detailed account of the tuna, and an entreaty that this not be its swan song.