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John Hopkins

Bluefin: Filming the Tuna’s Crisis

Date:December 2017
Location:Canada

“[Bluefin tuna] are a super fish. They can swim across the ocean in two weeks, they can dive down 3,000 feet, they can do a sprint at 55 miles an hour under the water and out swim torpedoes. They’ve tagged them and found them 25,000 miles away. They’re an extraordinary creature and we really don’t know anything about them.”

Interview with John Hopkins

John Hopkins is an award-winning filmmaker from Prince Edward Island (PEI), Canada’s smallest province. In this exclusive Green Interview, Hopkins speaks with Silver Donald Cameron about his latest film Bluefin, which takes place in the fishing community of North lake, PEI, the “Tuna Capital of the World.” Through interviews with fishermen, ocean ecologists, and government scientists he unravels the mystery about why these “super fish,” which had disappeared for more than a decade from Canadian waters due to overfishing, returned in large numbers only to find a diminished food source and a fishing community only too willing to exploit what has become a tragic reality.

In this exclusive Green Interview, Hopkins discusses the Bluefin’s puzzling behavior and how the film is ultimately an epic allegory, warning us that the ocean ecosystem is changing drastically and that the way we are attempting to “manage” it is broken.

In this exclusive interview with John Hopkins we discuss:

Tuna in Peril

Ranked by the World Conservation Union as critically endangered, the highly migratory western population of Atlantic Bluefin tuna—a large, warm-blooded and long-lived fish highly prized for its flesh in the sashimi market—spawns in the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico and feeds in the cool waters of Atlantic Canada in the summer. While the species had disappeared from Canadian waters for nearly a decade due to overfishing, it had made a recent come-back, which Hopkins connects to an increase in the stocks of herring, the tuna’s main food source. But as this food source was “fished out for lobster bait” and roe for sushi, the tuna were no longer getting enough to eat and have started to become “really skinny,” says Hopkins. As well, the normally elusive fish also started to behave in baffling ways. Hopkins explains: “The fish became so desperate in terms of hunger, you could hand feed the fish right over the side of the boat and tuna have always been a very wary fish, they’ve always been very scared of humans. In the old days when the stocks were great you’d be fishing for 30 days and not even see a tuna. These days if you don’t catch three to five tuna in a week you’re obviously not a good captain!” Hopkins says that now the tuna see the fishing boats as a food source.

Stock Management Model “Broken”

According to Hopkins, the system currently in place to “manage” the Bluefin tuna stocks is “broken.” He explains how stock assessments, which normally combine a variety of data sources to quantify fish stocks in order to determine fishing quotas, is not working in the case of the Bluefin tuna. “We have no indices in terms of any kind of proper stock assessment available anymore.” When it comes to the Bluefin tuna, the data are so poor with so much uncertainty about spawning biomass and recruitment potential—indicators that would normally contribute to a stock assessment—that scientists have been using fishing mortality or “catch effort” as a proxy to project abundance. The problem with this, says Hopkins, is that because the fish are starving they are becoming easy targets. “The fish are so easy to catch that Fisheries and Oceans Canada’s (DFO) records are off the charts.” Hopkins says that DFO is using this “supercharged” data in order to get more quota from the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) and that the system is in “complete chaos.”