Bluefin tuna are considered among the most highly prized of fish, often ending up as sashimi or sushi in Japan. But its superstar status as a delicacy has led to its endangered status, as well as heated clashes between fisherman and environmentalists. A new breakthrough in Europe may ease tensions over wild-caught bluefin tuna, allowing the fish to return to healthy populations. The New York Times reports that scientists in Europe, for the first time, have successfully bred the fish without hormones.

Experts are excited because this could be the break that the bluefin tuna needs to survive. Máire Geoghegan-Quinn is the European Union’s commissioner for research. As she told the NY Times, “If the results of this research can ultimately be commercialized, it can improve food supplies and contribute to economic growth and employment while also helping to ensure a sustainable management of bluefin tuna.” Fishermen worldwide depend on the tuna for their livelihood, which has made some governments uneasy about banning their capture. But as activists point out, sustainable practices are critically necessary; if the tuna goes extinct, fishermen will lose their livelihoods.

There is also a growing need to supply hormone-free farmed tuna to the public, who has lately begun to ask for foods to be raised naturally. The fish live in the western and eastern Atlantic as well as the Mediterranean. Greenpeace reports that nearly 80 percent of the fish have been fished out, even though they can contain dangerous levels of mercury because of their high metabolic rates. This tuna is also an important part of the food chain.

Organizations such as the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) have called for a temporary ban on commercial fishing to allow the wild populations to return to sustainable levels. But bluefin tuna is a $7.2 billion industry. Tuna farming began in the 1970s, when Canadian fisherman captured young tuna to be raised in pens. In the Mediterranean, farming is a serious threat to the species as most bluefin tuna are taken out of the wild before they have had a chance to reproduce.

Some remain skeptical that this latest discovery will solve any sustainability issues. Saskia Richartz is an oceans and fisheries expert with the European unit of Greenpeace in Brussels. As she told the NY Times, breeding these tuna “would rely on huge amounts of feed and antibiotics to keep farmed tuna from pests, which is not good for the environment.” She further compares it to breeding elephants for their ivory, as bluefin are considered a luxury item.

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Hormone-free bluefin tuna can be bred in captivity
Biologists in Europe have bred bluefin tuna without hormones in captivity, potentially boosting stocks of the endangered fish.