How fresh is your tuna?

An inter-Governmental organisation is helping small-scale fishermen put high-quality sashimi on your plate

Think of tuna and India’s seafood scene is probably not the first that comes to mind. Besides Kerala, tuna is largely ignored in seafood markets across the country.

This might be changing with the availability of high-quality tuna in India, being promoted through the Ocean Partnerships for Sustainable Fisheries and Biodiversity Conservation, a World Bank/GEF-funded project that is focussed on sustainable tuna fisheries in five areas in the world.

The Bay of Bengal Programme Inter-Governmental Organisation (BOBP-IGO), headquartered in Chennai, heads the Bay of Bengal component of this project, and is working to develop models of sustainably, locally-caught tuna fisheries for domestic consumers.

They are trying to create more efficient supply-chains to ensure customers can get high-quality tuna that can even be eaten raw as sashimi.

According to BOBP-IGO’s director Dr YS Yadava, project manager of the World Bank/GEF Project, tuna is not among the most preferred species in the domestic market because it is not traditionally caught.

“Tuna are highly migratory species, their relative abundance in the Indian seas is more in the deep, offshore waters and the availability is also seasonal,” he says.

“Fishing, until a couple of decades back, was traditionally limited to nearshore waters.”

    Healthy catch

    Currently, tuna are caught in gill nets, which causes the fish to get bruised and injured when they try to fight their way out. By the time the nets are hauled, and catch sorted, crucial hours pass after death. This time between death and freezing turns the meat from high to low quality.

    How fresh is your tuna?

    The main issue is the build-up of histamines, a biologically active substance that can be toxic at very high concentrations.

    Histamine levels should remain below 100 ppm, which is possible when tuna is frozen immediately after catch, but in tropical countries with poor freezing facilities, levels are known to rise above the acceptable threshold, even if the fish remains above 4 degrees Celsius for five minutes. In India, since tuna are not valued in the local market, they are sold in the open, with no ice (the same can be said for seerfish and mackerel).

    The story of tuna in India resembles that of the US and the UK several decades ago, where it was unheard of, often being discarded or used for pet food. Thanks to some clever marketing by the canning industry, sales began to skyrocket in those countries, to the point where some tuna, like the bluefin, are now considered by IUCN as critically endangered.

    Bigger picture

    Indian seas, according to the Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute, have nine species of the fish. The kawakawa, frigate tuna, dogtooth tuna, bullet tuna and oriental bonito, live relatively close to the shore. The skipjack, longtail, albacore and yellowfin tuna, the last of which is ‘Near Threatened’ according to IUCN, live in deep water and require different fishing gear and expertise.

    India’s tuna catch is comparable in quantity to the Maldives, Seychelles, France or the US, but does not have the same reputation because the fish that are brought in are not maintained well. Indian vessels are relatively small, do not use on-board refrigeration, and depend on ice — a diminishing resource that limits the amount of fish that can be properly stored and the duration of fishing trips.

    Dr Yadava says, “ BOBP-IGO is promoting the use of hand and line fishing method (which does not result in spoilage of the fish while handling and reduces by-catch and catch of juveniles) and of good practices in preservation before it is landed on-shore.”

    The writer is a marine ecologist working with InSeason Fish, a sustainable seafood initiative based in Tamil Nadu.

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    Printable version | Mar 26, 2020 2:21:09 AM |

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