Breeding Breakthrough Helps Sushi Baron Create Sustainable Tuna

July 10, 2009 at 2:58 pm Leave a comment

Hagen Stehr was at home in Adelaide, Australia, on March 12 when his company’s chief scientist called with news that their bet of about $48 million on the breeding of southern bluefin tuna in captivity — a feat never accomplished before — might finally pay off.

“Big fella, you better come back,” scientist Morten Deichmann said to the 6-foot-1-inch Stehr.

Stehr, chairman of Port Lincoln, Australia-based Clean Seas Tuna Ltd., rushed more than 500 kilometers (311 miles) to his company’s fish hatchery outside Arno Bay in southern Australia. With tears in his eyes, he pushed his Toyota Land Cruiser to its top speed of 180 kilometers an hour as he raced to see the fertilized eggs for himself. As the owner of a fishing fleet during the past four decades, Stehr had helped empty the seas of the bluefin tuna used in sushi restaurants from New York to Tokyo. Now, at age 67, he believed he was on the verge of saving the tuna — and the industry that made him rich — from the threat of extinction.

“Everyone thought I was a bloody lunatic,” says the suntanned Stehr, in jeans and a checked shirt from the iconic line of boots and outdoor clothing named for R.M. Williams, an Australian bushman. “Nobody in the world had ever done this. We’ve created a sustainable fishing industry for years ahead.”

The majestic bluefin, a metallic-blue-and-silver fish, is prized by sushi lovers in Japan, the U.S. and Europe for the rich taste and creamy texture of its meat. In their zeal to feed those palates, fishermen have almost wiped out the two species of bluefin — northern and southern — while also threatening the yellowfin and bigeye tuna.

Nothing Left to Fish

The eastern Atlantic bluefin, a northern variety found in the Mediterranean Sea, will probably vanish within 10 years, says a study by marine scientist Brian MacKenzie at the National Institute of Aquatic Resources in Charlottenlund, Denmark.

“In a few years, there’ll be nothing left for us to fish,” says Atsushi Sasaki, a Japanese fisherman who’s caught bluefin for 20 years. “The collapse of bluefin is just around the corner.”

The Japanese — the biggest consumers of bluefin — devour 80 percent of the world’s catch. The fish has been served at restaurants such as Nobu, a chain of at least 18 high-end Japanese eateries. The menu at Nobu London, however, warns that bluefin is a threatened species and asks patrons to order an alternative dish.

Failed Quotas

This is more than another fish story. The saga of the bluefin, a creature that can swim 45,000 miles in 17 months to spawn and feed, shows the difficulties in managing resources across borders — a sign of the challenges ahead as countries confront the more intractable problems of environmental degradation and global warming. At the same time, Stehr’s indoor-breeding breakthrough points to the role technology may play in addressing these broader resource issues.

Since the early 1980s, countries working through the United Nations have tried — and failed — to set catch quotas tough enough to protect bluefin and other tuna from overfishing.

“Where you have politicians arguing for a share of a quota, that quota will inevitably be inflated,” says Callum Roberts, a marine conservation biologist at the University of York in England. “That kind of decision making guarantees the collapse of a population.”

Stehr and his scientists now must find a way to grow fertilized hatchery eggs into adult tuna. One challenge: The bluefin, a predator, eats its young.

$20,000 Tuna

“If Hagen Stehr can solve the issues surrounding breeding predacious fish, he’ll have a sustainable product that will last forever,” says Barbara Block, a professor of marine science at Stanford University in California. “The future lies somewhere in what they’re doing.”

Clean Seas, which has raised about $58 million since its initial public offering in December 2005, plans to build more indoor tanks to protect and grow young fingerlings before they’re put into the ocean. Stehr aims to produce at least 250,000 bluefin by 2015 — a number that would almost equal the total bluefin catch of Australia’s fishermen in a single year.

As prices soar for bluefin, which sell for as much as $20,000 a fish at Tsukiji, the world’s largest fish market in Tokyo, Stehr stands to add to his fortune. He’s worth about $135 million, according to the 2009 annual Australian rich list by BRW magazine, a business publication owned by Sydney-based Fairfax Media Ltd. “It’s about more than making money,” Stehr says. “I would like to leave a legacy to the world with bluefin.”

Sky Diver

Stehr, who’s invested millions of his own money in the breeding of southern bluefin, has always been a risk taker. The former owner of a sky-diving school, he once jumped out of an airplane attached to a parachute packed into a shoe box that he held tucked under his arm.

“It’s more gung-ho-like,” says Stehr, who has a dragon figure tattooed on his forearm. “You make an exit out of the airplane door; you throw the shoe box in the air and pray to God that the chute comes out.”

Since the 1970s, Stehr has helped build a tuna industry that was worth about $7.2 billion globally in 2006. The fishermen have thrived on the high seas, particularly in the Mediterranean, where they have exceeded quotas established by regulators.

Greenpeace Protest

The International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas, the UN body that controls the Mediterranean region, set the limit for eastern Atlantic bluefin between 32,000 metric tons and 29,500 metric tons from 1999 to 2007. During that period, even as ICCAT’s own scientists pushed unsuccessfully for lower quotas, fishermen blew past the limits. They netted twice as much bluefin tuna as permitted, or up to 60,000 tons a year, according to ICCAT data.

In November 2008, ICCAT, composed of agricultural officials from 46 nations, including France, Spain, Italy and Japan, held a meeting in Morocco to set stricter quotas. As the meeting began, activists from the environmental group Greenpeace International dumped 5 tons of bluefin tuna heads in front of France’s Agriculture Ministry building in Paris under a banner reading “Bluefin Tuna Massacre.” The pile of gray-blue heads, each about the size of a basketball, spilled off the sidewalk into the street.

Greenpeace activists and several scientists were calling for ICCAT to temporarily ban bluefin fishing.

“If the situation doesn’t improve, ICCAT will take the blame for managing the collapse of one of the most important and profitable fisheries of our time,” says Sebastian Losada, oceans campaigner for Greenpeace in Spain.

Merchant Marine

Regulators did lower annual quotas to 18,500 tons of bluefin by 2010 and for the first time required that an ICCAT observer be onboard the larger vessels that use purse seines — crane-operated nets that can capture as much as 100 tons of fish in a day.

“If people play by the rules, we’ll still have a fishing season next year,” says Nathalie Charbonneau, a spokeswoman for the European Commission, whose ICCAT members account for 66 percent of the bluefin quota.

Stehr began fishing for tuna in 1961 after he arrived in Australia with little money and no work. A native of Germany, he left home at the age of 12 to become a cadet with the merchant marines and later served as a seaman on cargo ships, bouncing from job to job. When his freighter docked at Port Lincoln, Stehr got off the vessel and never returned.

Crazy Days

After a decade of catching tuna for other operators, he used money he earned diving for abalone to start his own fishing outfit. By the 1980s, the entrepreneur owned several companies that he brought together under the Stehr Group. Today, it boasts a fleet of 21 vessels that range from 30 feet to 100 feet long.

Stehr compares the heyday of bluefin fishing in the Great Australian Bight off the country’s southern coast to the Battle of Britain during World War II, when waves of German Luftwaffe bombers attacked England. Rival fishing companies flew as many as 12 planes at a time from Port Lincoln to spot schools of fish.

“Those days were crazy,” says Stehr. “It was catch as much as you can, kill as many fish in the shortest possible period of time, make a lot of money, then have the rest of the year off. We raped the industry quite badly.”

While Stehr was on his way to catching tens of thousands of tons of southern bluefin in his fishing career, Australia, Japan and New Zealand moved to slow the destruction. The governments began lowering their quotas for the fish in 1984, dropping them to a total of about 14,000 tons per year a decade later.

Fish Farming

The Australian government stood out for cracking down on quota violators, and in 2006 it accused Japan of exceeding its bluefin limit by a total of about 178,000 tons from 1985 to 2005. Japan acknowledged that some overfishing took place.

“You can’t even catch three too many or you end up a criminal,” Stehr says. “We all had our backs against the wall. Most of us were virtually bankrupt.”

To keep his business afloat in the early 1990s, Stehr helped start ocean-based fish farming — now a booming industry that has exacerbated the reduction of bluefin. Before quotas, fishermen chased the largest tuna because those earned the most profit at market. As restrictions cut into Stehr’s catch, he kept more of the younger tuna, which weighed less, and transferred them to cages at sea.

“We towed large cages in from 300, 400 miles out in the Great Australian Bight all the way to Port Lincoln,” Stehr says.

After feeding tuna in 20 cages for up to 8 months — enlarging them to weights that surpass his annual 400-ton catch limit — Stehr sells them to Japan, Europe and the U.S.

Mediterranean Boom

About 70 such farms dot the coasts of Spain, Italy, Croatia and Turkey — turning the Mediterranean region into a tuna pantry for Japan. The farms have a total capacity of 57,582 tons, or about three times the total ICCAT quota for the area this year.

They hold fish caught in the spring, which is the prime fishing season in the Mediterranean, until the winter, when demand peaks in Japan.

“In the beginning, ranching was a sustainable business that made sense; it really controlled the trade flux in bluefin,” says Roberto Mielgo Bregazzi, a Spaniard who developed the first farms in the Mediterranean. “Then the business matured and resulted in a mushrooming of tuna ranches. In 15 years, we have almost wiped out the entire stock, and I’m very pessimistic we can save it.”

Breeding Tuna

He quit the industry in 2003 and started ATRT Tuna-Ranching Intelligence Unit to expose abuses in the trade.

As wild tuna became scarcer, Stehr started Clean Seas in 2000 with the idea of breeding the fish. The hatchery is set on 700 hectares (1,730 acres) surrounded by sheep ranches and grain farms just outside Arno Bay. The concrete breeding tank — about 25 meters in diameter and 7 meters deep — is housed in a plain, white shed that’s monitored with security cameras.

“We are quite strict who we let into our hatchery,” Stehr says.

To get the bluefin to breed, scientists at Clean Seas designed the tank to simulate conditions in the ocean. Using overhead lights to suggest the sun and moon, saltwater piped in from the ocean, artificial currents and temperature controls, the scientists have tried to re-create the experience of a spawning journey for the fish.

Helicopter Airlift

Stehr hired a former Vietnam War helicopter pilot to airlift 400-pound (180-kilogram) adult tuna one by one from the sea to the tank. The fish were pacified, suspended beneath the helicopter, flown over the top of the shed, which has a removable roof, and lowered into the tank. Scientists were concerned that the effects of stress on the tuna from what Stehr called a “military-style operation” might prevent them from spawning.

“It’s like playing cricket with hand grenades,” Stehr says. “If something goes wrong, it costs you mega­dollars.”

Miles Wise, one of about 20 scientists who live at the hatchery for months at a time, watches over the feeding and health of the tuna via a flat-screen monitor. Once a week, he dons a wet suit and enters the tank to get a closer look at the tuna, a fish that will die if it stops swimming.

“They are a difficult species to work with, so it’s been very trying over the last couple of years,” Wise says.

The fish entered the tank in 2006, and for three years the females didn’t produce eggs although the males were making sperm. Stehr’s scientists changed almost every variable, including water temperature and the age of the males.

Hormone Injections

Hormone injections, given to females using spearguns, were a key in finally getting the tuna to spawn, says Abigail Elizur, a professor at the University of Sunshine Coast in Queensland, Australia, who works with Clean Seas. In March, the females began to lay eggs, setting off a mating ritual that lasted for more than one month. On some days, the tuna generated as many as 2 million fertilized eggs.

“Every time you crack a new species, it’s always very exciting,” says Deichmann, the chief scientist who also helped Stehr breed kingfish, a type of amberjack popular for making sushi in Japan. “To everybody that is working in marine hatchery, tuna is the crown. It is probably the most significant thing I have done.”

In 2002, Kinki University’s fisheries laboratory in southern Japan first bred northern bluefin in the ocean under the stewardship of marine scientist Yoshifumi Sawada. The problem with ocean breeding is that the tuna don’t consistently produce fertilized eggs, and only 2 percent of them survive to become juveniles due to cannibalism and dietary issues. Sawada says his project is a long way from achieving large-scale commercial production.

Preventing Cannibalism

The university sold 5,000 fingerlings last year to commercial farms, equal to only 2.5 percent of the 200,000 young tuna caught by Japanese fishing companies for farming annually.

“It’s not enough,” Sawada says.

Stehr may have more success in mass-producing tuna. At Clean Seas, the use of hormones may spur females to spawn more consistently, says Elizur. And scientists can prevent cannibalism by removing the eggs, which float to the surface of the water, from the tanks.

“We have over 50 million fertilized eggs and larvae,” Stehr says. “We have so many we can hold the equivalent of 28 years of quotas for wild southern bluefin in the palm of one hand.”

Stehr still must overcome other obstacles to growing tuna into adults. The fish used to feed captive tuna — primarily mackerel and sardines — are also in short supply in many parts of the world. In attempting to save tuna, breeders have to find a way to avoid wiping out the feeder fish. Clean Seas is developing wheat-based pellets to feed its tuna.

General Patton

“Within five years, they’ll be breeding thousands of young tuna,” says Stanford’s Block, who’s served as an unpaid adviser to Clean Seas. “We still have to solve the feed issue, and that’s the huge worry out there.”

In looking for inspiration during the tough years when he couldn’t get his tuna to spawn, Stehr would open a history book about his hero, George Patton, the four-star U.S. general who helped repel the German offensive at the Battle of the Bulge during World War II.

“When I feel kind of low, I read General Patton,” says Stehr, who has the warrior’s picture on his office wall.

If Stehr’s breeding experiment bears fruit, it will change his place in history — from one of the fishermen who endangered the bluefin to the entrepreneur who helped save it.

By Stuart Biggs and Madelene Pearson

 Bloomberg

 

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