Within seconds of being hauled onto the Shen Lain Cheng, a 79-foot tuna fishing boat from China, the crew’s most senior member, whose deeply wrinkled face conveys more than his 58 years, is plunging a T-handled spike between the glistening eyes of a 100-lb yellowfin tuna. The hope is that the swift death has minimized the release of lactic acid, which degrades the flesh meat and reduces the crew’s chances of earning a grade-A for this fish once it is offloaded back at port in Koror, Palau, a small island nation in the Pacific Ocean.
If the buyers back in Koror—who inspect and score the quality of each tuna’s meat—give it a high grade, this particular tuna could net around $2,800 wholesale in Japan, where it will be resold at great profit in a sushi restaurant.
It all looks like a typical day of tuna wrangling on the high seas, except that it’s not. Aboard are Lotus Vermeer, who directs the global fisheries program for The Nature Conservancy, a U.S.-based environmental organization, Michael Musyl, principal scientist of the Pelagic Research Group in Hawaii and a shark expert, and Ivan Sesebo, a tuna fishery observer, who works for an auditor hired by the boat’s owner, Hong Kong-based Luen Thai Fishing Ventures, to ensure compliance with fishing regulations.
This trio is executing an experiment, funded by the Conservancy’s Indo-Pacific Tuna Program, to test whether changing the designs of the hooks and other fishing practices could reduce the amount of bycatch—species that are unintentionally caught and often include sharks, turtles, reef fish and other threatened or endangered species—without also reducing the tuna catch, thereby keeping the business financially lucrative for fishing companies.