Fiction, 9/30/10

For her, life began at sea, amid the gently rolling swells of the Gulf of Mexico. It was a sultry night in mid-May when her mother, along with several thousand of their kind, arrived at these ancestral spawning waters to congress, to cast the seeds of posterity. Led there by instinct, perhaps following minute traces of pheromones in the current, or maybe dialing in to some invisible magnetic route via lateral line, the tuna swam for almost a week straight from the Atlantic seaboard, very rarely stopping to feed or rest. Some amongst them knew the gulf to be their natal spawning site—the waters in which they had been born—while others were conceived elsewhere (most likely the Mediterranean), and were simply following the school. All of them, though, were driven by the same biological impetus: the desire to mate.

They were northern bluefin tuna, Thunnus thynnus, the largest of the Scombridae family. Gunmetal gray with silvery-white undersides, capable of attaining more than ten feet in length and weighing almost three-quarters of a ton, the bluefin were swift, svelte creatures despite their considerable size. Most of the fish in the school that night were younger, however, and smaller: five feet long, 300 pounds average. Most of them, including her mother, had just reached their fifth year; bluefin became sexually mature at around four to five years old. This would be their first spawn. If they were lucky, they might return to these waters annually for the next 20-odd years of their lives—but only if they were lucky.

Thousands upon thousands of bluefin congregated in the moonlit gulf. What transpired that night may to the outsider appear strange, but by piscine standards was completely ordinary: male tuna chased female tuna, sometimes in packs, until the female released her clutch of eggs; whereupon the males would rush forth to fertilize those eggs in a cloud of milt, or tuna sperm. It was a messy, haphazard sort of affair. Her mother joined the fray, indiscriminately jettisoning her millions of eggs to the lukewarm waves with the others. Before long the water was turbid with milt and pea-sized, buoyant tuna roe. Having upheld their instinctual edict, the bluefin dispersed, returning to the colder, more nutrient-rich waters of the north.

That night she became an egg-bound zygote, one among trillions floating atop the gulf. In a day or so she would hatch as a two-centimeter larva and begin to feed on other, smaller plankters near the surface, ducking under bits of flotsam whenever shadows passed ominously overhead. On the open ocean, moving shadows usually meant danger, often in the form of piscivorous birds such as pelicans and gulls. Of course, dangers from below were equally pressing, if not more so: Juveniles and larvae of innumerable pelagic species would gladly feast on baby bluefin if given the chance. Same went for whale sharks, mackerel and other full-time filter-feeders. It was a fish-eat-fish world. Fortunately for her, few fish could match a bluefin’s voracious appetite—an insatiable, all-consuming hunger that bordered on the obscene. Nature made tuna into veritable eating machines.

She grew prodigiously over the first few months, gorging on sardines, herring and squid throughout the north Atlantic. By the time she was 18 months old, she measured two and a half feet long and weighed 30 pounds. Streamlined and packed with muscle, she and her fellow schoolmates could pursue prey at more than 30 miles per hour, shooting through the water column like open-mouthed torpedoes. They would cover hundreds of miles a day in search of food, even venturing into the frigid waters off Greenland for the shoals of fatty Atlantic mackerel. She, like all tuna, was homeothermic—that is, she could regulate the temperature of her body via a network of parallel-running arteries and veins—as warm-blooded as a fish could get. Warm arterial blood flowed past the cooler venous blood, transferring the heat and thereby keeping the tuna’s core temperature higher than that of the surrounding water. This little trick ensured that her muscles remained warm and supple, even in Arctic climes, even while diving to depths of 3,000 feet or more.

It soon became apparent that she was no average bluefin. At the age of four she weighed almost half a ton and stretched eight and a half feet from nose to tail. She out-fished, out-swam, and eventually outgrew all of her former schoolmates. Tuna sorted themselves by size, and she soon found a new school of comparably-sized fish to swim with. In addition to bluefin, this massive school housed hundreds of skipjack and yellowfin tuna, as well as a large pod of Atlantic spotted dolphins. She was swimming alongside distant cousins and alien, oceanic mammals that filled the water with their clicks and whistles, echo-locating shoals of baitfish often before the tuna had caught scent of them. Tuna had keen enough vision, but nothing approaching the sonar of the dolphins. Sometimes, though, on days when shoals were particularly few and far between, the sense of smell prevailed: the tuna found fish first. So it was that the dolphins and the bluefin, skipjack, and yellowfin worked side-by-side commensally, each group contributing to the overall success of the school.

Being in such a large group provided ample feeding opportunities for all, as well as relative safety in numbers. But pelagic life was not without its perils. One day, when she was almost four and half years old, the school was beset by a pod of orca whales. Corralled into a loose ball, panicked from the scent of blood and death in the water, the tuna could only watch as the orcas strafed past, taking turns, each coming away with a thrashing tuna in its mouth. Another day they were attacked by three great white sharks, which chased the school for nearly six miles off the coast of Nova Scotia. She saw tuna drawn into enormous purse seines and hauled out of the ocean; she saw underwater holding pens, where captured tuna were fattened up for future harvest. She saw all this, but she was accustomed to death—it was her way of life.

As she approached her fifth year, the hormones of motherhood began kicking in apace. Her appetite waned as her ovaries swelled with millions of eggs, and she felt the primordial urge to return to the gulf, the place of her birth. In April she joined the thousands of adult bluefin swimming south-west toward the spawning waters. Once they rounded the Florida panhandle, however, something seemed amiss. There was a substance in the water—something oleaginous, sticking to their gill rakers and flooding their nostrils—that worried the tuna, caused them to balk and turn around. She fled with the others, discharging her eggs, unfertilized, to become fodder for the sea.

For the next ten years she would ply the world’s oceans, steadily increasing in size. She was one of the lucky ones: Having eluded capture and remained healthy despite the myriad obstacles, she was living the almost-unheard of life of a mature bluefin tuna. She never returned to the gulf, whose waters smelled and tasted of poison to her. Instead, every June, she ventured into the Mediterranean Sea to broadcast her progeny where it felt safer, cleaner. She led the schools now—she was a matriarch, an old-timer who had borne witness to the ways of the world.

But she didn’t see the hook imbedded in that pallid squid. Nor did she realize that the baited hook was part of a three-mile longline, and that, upon taking it, she had little chance of escape before being reeled in, hung up, and bled to death aboard the Japanese fishing vessel Owari. It was a warm August day. The crew began working the line at noon. She was on fast, they knew, and she was big. Stubbornly she fought—for hours she fought—but eventually she tired and was brought alongside the boat, where she was gaffed behind the right eye and hauled on deck. There she was hoisted up by her sickle-shaped tail and eviscerated, her life and blood draining out onto the floorboards, soon to be washed off and reunited with the ocean’s salty indifference. She was a behemoth; the captain and crew marveled over her in the fading sunlight. Fourteen feet long, 1,500 pounds. The captain cut into her belly with a knife and gazed admiringly at the fat striations: She had led a good, long life, he thought, and now she would make him rich.

For her, sentient life ended on a commercial fishing boat in the north Pacific. In a corporeal sense, though, her life continued on, for after that day in August her body was unloaded in Tokyo—her posthumous maiden voyage on dry land—and flash-frozen in preparation for market. Before freezing, her head and tail were lopped off, to better exhibit the fine marbling and deep crimson hue of her flesh. The next day, at Tokyo’s Tsukiji fish market, vendors and buyers alike gaped at the monstrous bluefin—no one could remember having seen a larger, more perfect tuna. And sushi-grade, no less. As her carcass sat on the auction block, spectators waited with bated breath for the final call: 19 million yen, the highest price ever fetched for a bluefin in Tsukiji’s history. She was sold to the owner of an upscale restaurant in central Tokyo, where her belly meat would be sliced thin and served raw as ōtoro. The restaurant, already popular with the upper crust of the city, gained worldwide notoriety as the purveyor of “Ribaisan,” as she came to be known—the leviathan.

She was a legend of her time, enjoying greatness in both life and death. Whether she was aware of this is doubtful, and irrelevant to boot. What concerned her were matters of consequence: finding food, contributing to the gene pool, avoiding an early demise. What matters is, she lived—and the world was better for it.


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