Richard Ellis, Tuna: Love, Death, and Mercury

I need to talk about Richard Ellis' 2008 book Tuna: Love, Death, and Mercury (originally published as Tuna: A Love Story) in two quite separate ways, because it's both fascinating and maddening.

The content of Ellis' book is worth a considerable chunk of your time, even if Taras Grescoe's slightly more recent Bottomfeeder (reviewed here) gives you a perspective on more than just the assorted species of tuna. But the writing, or possibly the editing, drove me batty enough that I'm tempted to suggest reassigning the main editor to other duties, and keeping the author under a very firm hand indeed in any future work.

In brief, the book's a paean to the assorted species of tuna, who collectively and individually represent all sorts of marvels technological and evolutionary. They're warm-blooded fish, unbelievably, with built-in flow-reversing heat exchangers keeping their body temperatures constant at about 27 degrees Celsius in water ranging from 3 to 30 degrees. They can swim at up to 55 miles per hour, grow to over 1500 pounds, cross the Atlantic once or more per year, dive to more than 1500 feet of depth.

And in 2001, a 440-pound bluefin sold at auction for the equivalent of roughly $173,000. Single large bluefins, the most prized for the Japanese sashimi market, each sell for thousands of dollars, though a great many factors weigh into the price: fattiness, texture, market economics, scarcity versus glut, and so on. As a result, bluefin tuna has been fished so intensively that extinction is on the horizon. The other species aren't suffering as badly, at least not yet, but the book's theme is basically that tuna has been overfished since they were first taken seriously just over a century ago (with bluefin not being particularly important to Japanese cuisine until the 1960s, much to my surprise), and unless we stop wanting to eat so damned many of them, there won't be any left. (Hello, Atlantic cod fishery. How are things?)

The more carefully I read the book, though, the crankier I got at the repetitions, the lack of cross-references, the incomplete (shoddy?) index. And I'm not talking about people recurring unnecessarily at different points, though they do, or at revisiting the same ideas: I'm talking about whole sentences appearing more than once in the book, separated by a hundred or more pages. For example, a seven-sentence passage on farming bluefins appears verbatim on pages 16 and 268, including a multi-sentence quotation, and pages 20 and 167 feature identical brief discussions of how great white sharks can sometimes enter tuna nets. The index is fairly lengthy, but it doesn't include all mentions of its terms: when I went looking for mentions of Andrew Revkin, to confirm whether the same quotation was used more than once, I found that the index only included some of the occurrences.

Plus the titular reference to mercury had me expecting it to be a major thread, and it's not. It doesn't show up until 75% of the way through the book, and it only takes up a few pages out of roughly a 20-page section. The postscript for this edition (by Vintage) addresses mercury specifically, but that's hardly adequate to justify the title. Felt to me kind of like a marketing scam.

Ellis complains at one point, in a footnote, about Farley Mowat's failure to provide a full scholarly apparatus in his books, particularly Sea of Slaughter. Admittedly it seems that Mowat may have made some things up, in order to generate a more effective narrative or to support more broadly a hypothesis or belief, and so Mowat should be chastised for this sort of thing. But in a book that's lacking structural consistency? Glass house and stones, let he without the first sin, etc.

Great details, interesting characters, almost an inside story: Richard Ellis' Tuna has almost everything going for it, except an editor up to the task of directing and controlling Ellis' copious energies. Read it and learn, certainly, but it's not as well crafted as Taras Grescoe's Bottomfeeder, or Michael Pollan's Omnivore's Dilemma, or Alisa Smith and JB MacKinnon's 100-Mile Diet.

If you're interested in the book anyway, don't feel badly about reading a chapter or two instead of the whole thing - especially if you stop eating tuna indiscriminately. Learn where it's from, how it's caught, and whether it's sustainable: eat knowledgeably, and everything wins.


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