Of all countries, it's here in Israel, far away from Japan – the origin land of sushi – that a start-up is in the making, set up to save the Atlantic bluefin tuna, an endangered species at risk of extinction that is regarded as a delicacy.
The Atlantic bluefin tuna is considered the largest, most in-demand and highly-prized of all tuna species. It's this species of tuna used in the popular [sushi] dish. However, the growing demand for the bluefin tuna has led to severe over-fishing and the species is at risk of extinction.A slice of one single kilogram of the fish sells in Japanese markets for as high as $1,000 dollars or even more.
"Bluefin tuna have been a valuable commercial catch for thousands of years, since ancient times. However, the species is endangered by the electronic devices used to follow and detect the fish, and the bluefin tuna populations have virtually no chance of survival," says Dr. Hanna Rosenfeld, director of Israel's National Center for Mariculture (NCM), one of the research centers of the National Institute of Oceanography (NIO), who has set out to save the endangered species of the Atlantic bluefin tuna.
Dr. Rosenfeld notes that "while there is an international organization acting for the conservation of the [Atlantic] bluefin tuna [The International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT)], which sets [global] fishing quotas, the bluefin tuna populations are heavily targeted and more effective measures should thus be taken for the conservation efforts to bear fruit."
In an attempt to forestall its extinction, wide-ranging projects have been launched in various countries for the domesticated breeding of the Atlantic bluefin tuna, the commercially more valuable close relative of the Pacific bluefin tuna, found in the northern hemisphere.
As a matter of fact, a venture of domesticated captive breeding of the Pacific bluefin tuna was launched in Japan 30 years ago. However, for all their know-how and determination, the Japanese have not succeeded in establishing a similar reproduction and rearing center for the Atlantic species.
Ten years ago, Dr. Rosenfeld joined the Atlantic bluefin tuna domesticated breeding research project, conducted in collaboration with the European REPRODOTT and SELFDOTT research consortiums. Highly specialized scientists from Israel, Greece, Italy, Spain, Germany, France and Malta are currently taking part in the research project and they are jointly striving to succeed where their predecessors failed. Now, following a decade of research, it seems that a breakthrough has been achieved — Israeli-made.
Reproduction in the Mediterranean
"It's Hillel Gordin, a member of Kibbutz Yotvata and former director of the National Center for Mariculture in Eilat [NCM founder and director from 1971 to 1997], who first conceived the idea," Dr. Rosenfeld recalls."At the time, I was a young researcher, a tyro. When I joined the project, it seemed an incredible idea, a really crazy notion, completely unrealistic, since it is one of the most complex fish, with a highly intricate life cycle. I am glad that we have managed to achieve a breakthrough. We have succeeded in breeding the bluefin tuna in fish cages and we are also having success rearing the baby fish and growing them to full size. However, we have not succeeded yet in closing the circle and bringing about the propagation of bluefin tuna spawned in captivity," Dr. Rosenfeld says.
The Atlantic bluefin tuna is well known in Israel. Schools of bluefin tuna visit the Mediterranean for a three-week stay each year. They come here for the breeding season, when the sea is shallow and the seawater temperature is just right for spawning the eggs. The researchers hope to turn Israel into a more significant stop in the migration route and life cycle of the bluefin tuna.
"We hope to make progress now and advance to the next stage of stepped up research, where we will be able to close the life cycle of the domesticated fish, setting up an international land-based institution in Israel for domesticated captive breeding of the Atlantic bluefin tuna. Once we achieve this goal, we will not be dependent any more on wild fish and we will be able to set in motion the recovery of the global population of this endangered species that is at risk of extinction."