Anticipating Extinction in the Tales of Two Fish

Deciding to not order the tuna or eel at a restaurant won’t save those dying species. But imagining a new kind of “multispecies thriving” might.

You are looking at a menu of nigiri sushi—a band of fish placed carefully atop a ball of rice, maybe with a brush of wasabi underneath. You know that fisheries stocks have been collapsing, and you want to be a good environmentalist, so you whip out your phone to look at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch App, which promises to help you select sustainably caught fish. As you scroll through, you might be disappointed to learn that two popular fish—eel (unagi) and bluefin tuna (maguro)—are on the “avoid” list, labeled red. Perhaps you take comfort in making other choices, electing to eat uni (urchin) and yellowtail instead. You put your phone away and look forward to your delicious meal.

However, the uncomfortable truth brought to light by books like Elspeth Probyn’s Eating the Ocean (2016) and Paul Greenberg’s Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food (2010) is that consumer choice is not enough to solve the problem of overfishing. Much of the fish systemically extracted from our oceans goes toward fertilizer for agriculture, and toward feeding other farmed fish (like salmon). To really make a difference in the survivability of world fish stocks would mean rethinking the uses of fish beyond the sushi plate—which would hinge on questions of better management, informed by better science. Individual choices at the sushi restaurant, Probyn contends, simply come too late.

Perhaps now you want to study the systemic issues in the global fisheries industry. Yet, as Jennifer Telesca’s new book contends, fisheries management and science—surprisingly—don’t always lead to more effective conservation. In Red Gold: The Managed Extinction of the Giant Bluefin Tuna, Telesca convincingly shows that management has not worked to save tuna but, rather, to ensure uninterrupted access to global tuna stocks, treating them as abstract commodities rather than living, breathing, exceptionally powerful fish that are worthy of concern. In order to contest the commoditization of tuna, she does something perhaps surprising: advocating for art and literature. Telesca concludes her policy study by calling for accounts of tuna that present them in full color, and as deeply connected to human culture.

One book that models precisely this kind of nature writing is The Book of Eels, by Swedish author Patrik Svensson, which meditates on Europe’s connection to eels through eating, fishing, literature, and scientific study, as well as revisits the author’s childhood experiences of fishing for eels with his father. Svensson delves into the many ways that eels have hooked us, by provoking questions about uncertain gender, the existential effects of metamorphosis, and mystery. It is a phenomenal, and deeply philosophical, tour through the life cycle of the eel. However, this book also has its limitations, offering only a brief gloss on the diminished future of European eels, as populations decline from overfishing and pollution. It lacks the sustained kind of policy analysis found in Telesca’s book, which makes possible a more systemic critique, but at the same time brilliantly illuminates the mysterious life of its subject.

It is thus worth taking a deep dive into Red Gold and The Book of Eels as complementary texts that illustrate two very different approaches to writing about the impending extinction of fish species in our global oceans. These are books that require each other. These are books that should be friends and coconspirators in the common project of understanding our multispecies relationships and regimes of commodity extraction. These are books that should make you think about your sushi menu very, very differently.

The International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas, or ICCAT (pronounced “eye-cat”), is charged with managing bluefin-tuna extraction, divvying up a quantity of tuna referred to as a “pie.” In this metaphor, the yearly pie is called “total allowable catch,” or TAC, which is negotiated (carved) among participating member states, largely influenced by the US, Europe, and Japan. The TAC is determined by first calculating the maximum sustainable yield, or MSY—which designates how many fish can theoretically be extracted from the ocean before the population is affected. However, turning again to the acronym ICCAT, you might wonder if it makes sense to trust “cats” to determine how much delicious tuna they can take from the ocean, using estimates from their own internal advisory board of scientists.

A five-chapter ethnography of the inner workings of ICCAT, Red Gold argues that management is not the solution we thought it was. The book examines a series of ICCAT meetings, from 2010 to 2013, that often blur together in a way that supports Telesca’s argument that “ICCAT is born as a juridical echo chamber.” Her ethnographic observations bring us again and again to the scenes of policy making that involve similar players, only at different hotels. Telesca’s carefully composed study shows how ICCAT, despite having the word “conservation” in its name, is more about conserving member-country access to Atlantic bluefin tuna, through the meticulous negotiation of allowable quotas. The problem, Telesca argues, is that bluefin are being managed to extinction. This is a counterintuitive claim that is worth examining. Isn’t extinction usually an accident, based on lack of knowledge? Shouldn’t more scientifically informed management help mitigate the bluefin’s slide toward extinction?


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Telesca argues that calculation is actually part of the problem. Tuna are rendered into commodities through complex statistical calculations that, because the math is so complicated, produce the veneer of objectivity. These abstractions seem objective because they use mathematical modeling, but they paper over key aspects of biological science that undercut their own authority. Indeed, the fiction of the ICCAT pie is actually quite flaky, as soon as you ask questions about the behavior and life cycle of tuna. ICCAT divides bluefin tuna into two managed “stocks,” one in the eastern Atlantic and one in the western Atlantic. This division into two distinct stocks persists, despite the fact that tuna are marvelously powerful and fast fish that can cross the Atlantic in as little as 40 days! In spite of this common knowledge about tuna migration—that they shuttle back and forth across the Atlantic—ICCAT’s population modelers hold on to the fiction of two distinct “stocks” and use it in their calculations of MSY and TAC that then determine how many fish each country will be entitled to extract. Telesca chooses to leave the word “stock” in quotation marks for the duration of the book, perhaps as a protest—and also intentionally refers to the bluefin as “she”/“her” throughout, as a way to counter perceptions of the bluefin simply as “it” (or the default “he” for animals). What the two “stocks” really create are zones of extraction: who can call dibs on fishing bluefin tuna, and on which side of the Atlantic.

ICCAT’s population models also fail to address the decreasing size of bluefin tuna over time. ICCAT determines how many abstract “tons” of bluefin can be taken from the ocean legally, but this weight-based variable obscures the importance of the individual—and individual size. As Telesca writes, there is little knowledge about bluefin-tuna reproduction, and about the overall effect of taking most of the large (horse-size) tuna from the oceans and leaving only the small individuals. By failing to account for this inconvenient biological detail, obscured by the abstract measure of “tons” rather than individuals, ICCAT consistently operates on incomplete information that allows it to continue divvying up the pie of tuna stocks based on the tonnage that was taken in previous years—and to ignore cautionary signs, like the decreasing size of individuals.

Telesca provocatively argues that the “tragedy of the commons” is the wrong name for the diminishing tuna stocks, because management produced their overexploitation. While the book could have used a more prolonged Rachel Carson moment—the type of lyrical writing that promotes wonder and curiosity—Telesca concludes by emphasizing the need for work that paints the bluefin in full color. “Under prevailing conditions of valuation,” Telesca warns, “tuna will remain just another commodity for sale, unable to break free from her abstract class of being to become a singular individual in the dominant society recognized for her indispensability in webs of life.”

Patrik Svensson’s The Book of Eels answers Telesca’s call to “revalue the lives that have been discounted, discarded, and destroyed.” Like Red Gold, The Book of Eels is also an elegy for a disappearing fish stock—the European eel, Anguilla anguilla—but it takes a very different approach to storytelling, research, and form. Instead of a deep dive into policy, Svensson gives us an intimate portrait of the eel as both a shy creature of mystery and a figure for certain aspects of the human condition. Svensson alternates between natural-history chapters—about the life history of the eel and those who have studied it—and autobiographical chapters detailing his personal history fishing for eels with his father (in one such memory, his father, referring to skinning an eel, said, “Let’s take off its pajamas”). This bivocal structure not only presents a cultural history of the eel—which garnered the interest of Aristotle, Freud, and Rachel Carson, among others—but also tells us how Svensson became interested in the eel in the first place, largely tied to his memories of catching eels as a youth. Reflecting on his storytelling method, Svensson writes: “What Rachel Carson realized, and what makes her unique in the history of natural science, was that she had to be able to see part of herself in another creature in order to truly understand it,” allowing the eel to remain “a mystery, but no longer a complete stranger.”

Part of what Svensson finds so compelling about the eel is its life cycle, which includes four stages of metamorphosis: willow leaf (the larval stage, in the Sargasso Sea), glass eel (the stage when it arrives at the European coast), yellow eel (which lives in freshwater rivers, lakes, and swamps of its choice), and finally, silver eel (the mature stage, in which it heads back to the Sargasso Sea to breed). Where the eel’s story becomes truly weird is in this final stage of life. Svensson writes that at some point, after 15 to 30 years, the eel will suddenly decide to reproduce—and it is unknown what triggers this decision. Left alone, eels have been known to remain in a juvenile state for upwards of 100 years, as told in one harrowing chapter about an eel left in a well for over two human lifetimes.

Imagining a path forward, toward a future that centers multispecies thriving, requires reading across genres.

The capacity of the eel to transform throughout its life makes it a fascinating existential subject. Unlike humans—who are always shaping the landscape to accommodate their own standards of comfort—the eel, Svensson writes, “doesn’t require much of [its] home; the environs are something to adapt to, to endure and get to know—a muddy stream or lake bed, preferably with some rocks and hollows to hide in, and enough food.” This observation about the eel’s modest footprint strongly reminded me of the ethical model of space exploration imagined in Becky Chambers’s 2019 science fiction novella To Be Taught, If Fortunate. In this book, Chambers imagines a human form of metamorphosis called “somaforming.” As a sort of opposite to terraforming—or making the landscape of an alien planet fit human beings—somaforming reshapes astronauts to suit the conditions of other planets. The capacity for metamorphosis in To Be Taught and The Book of Eels embodies a sustainable, low-impact relationship with one’s surroundings—an act of accommodating the environment, rather than making it conform to humans. Svensson admires the eel’s modest environmental footprint as an ethical way of being in the world.

As later chapters in The Book of Eels show, our knowledge of the eel’s life cycle has come at a great cost of time and resources, and for comparably little reward. The eel is a slippery subject whose full life story eluded the grasp of many scientists who spent years sailing across the Atlantic, trying to find its breeding grounds. In one memorable chapter, Svensson tells the history of how, at age 19, Sigmund Freud traveled to Italy and dissected over four hundred eels, trying to find one pair of eel testicles, which—at the time—had never been discovered, and would have solved a major piece of the eel puzzle: How do they reproduce if only females have been found? Freud cut, and cut and cut—and failed. The story of Freud’s failure to find male eel testicles provides fascinating historical context for his notorious theory of penis envy, and it is difficult not to suspect that Freud projected his own frustrations onto a generic female, heterosexual subject.

For Svensson, not only is the eel a creature of scientific, culinary, and even cultural interest—it evokes a certain existential condition. “The origin of the eel,” he writes, “and its long journey are, despite their strangeness, things we might relate to, even recognize: its protracted drifting on the ocean currents in an effort to leave home, and its even longer and more difficult way back—the things we are prepared to go through to return home.”


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Perhaps the most compelling aspect of The Book of Eels is how telling the story of the eel becomes a way for Svensson to work through the death of his father. Svensson foreshadows a sense of mortality throughout, which culminates in a poignant chapter concluding the book. The loss of a father calls to mind another well-loved work of nonfiction writing, H Is for Hawk (2014), by Helen Macdonald, in which the author also works through grief by writing about her relationship with an animal. While the goshawk of Macdonald’s prose is not endangered in the wild, the European eel is heading toward extinction. The passing of Svensson’s father and the possible extinction of the eel are intertwined stories throughout The Book of Eels, prompting reflections on mortality at the level of the family and the level of species.

To really understand the social complexity of how the eel came to be on the brink of extinction, however, requires not only a cultural history, but also a broader understanding of economics and policy—in other words, the meticulous level of social-science analysis modeled by Red Gold. The European eel could use precisely this kind of study, one keyed in to the systems of economic extraction that have pushed the species closer to extinction. Yet it is here that Svensson notes the following conundrum: to place a moratorium on eel fishing would extinguish cultural practices of fishing for eels, and probably mean that people care less about them. If people care less about the eels, then such fishing protections may fade away.

Imagining a path forward, toward a future that centers multispecies thriving, requires reading across genres. We might see The Book of Eels and Red Gold as books that necessitate each other, offering complementary strategies for understanding what journalist Elizabeth Kolbert calls the “sixth extinction.” The sixth extinction is a terrifying phrase for the diminishment of all kinds of megafauna (large animals) around the world, coincident with human practices of hunting, fishing, and extraction. It is an event that doesn’t have to continue, because humans—who have the capacity for self-reflection—are causing it. The extinction of large animals (for example, rhinos) is more noticeable on land; in contrast, it is so much easier for the loss of aquatic animals, like the giant bluefin tuna (with some adults approaching the size of a rhino), to pass unnoticed in the open ocean, so distant from terrestrial life. The ocean presents urgent challenges for the study and representation of aquatic life forms, especially those that inhabit or reproduce in the middle of the Atlantic—necessitating the kind of work that Red Gold and The Book of Eels can contribute, by bringing the ocean that much closer.


This article was commissioned by Gretchen Bakke and Brent Ryan Bellamyicon

Featured image: Unagi and maguro at Oyaji in San Francisco (2008). Photograph by Victor Lee / Flickr