There's a lot about tuna that Hagen Stehr still doesn't understand, but he's sure of one thing. "When I was young I could make love anywhere in the street, on the boat, in the park, anywhere," booms the 66-year-old fishing magnate from Port Lincoln, South Australia. "Later in life, you gotta have the bedroom, the light ... everything's gotta be nice and soft, the ambience gotta be right. With tuna, it's no different. Everything's gotta be right."
For the endangered southern bluefin tuna, prized in Japan for its texture and taste as sushi and sashimi, that in-the-mood feeling happens in only one place: the warm waters of the Indian Ocean south of Java, Indonesia. But Stehr, a German immigrant who has built a seafood empire worth around $250 million, claims to be close to changing that. He's convinced he can sate the voracious international appetite for the oily, red flesh of southern bluefin without putting more pressure on diminishing wild stocks, now estimated to be less than 10% of their 1960 numbers.
Through his company Clean Seas Tuna, the former French Legionnaire and seaman has engaged fish-breeding experts to create just the ambience to get southern bluefin feeling frisky.
Their answer is a kind of fishy virtual reality, bringing the Indian Ocean indoors to a hatchery at the hamlet of Arno Bay, 120 km north of Port Lincoln, South Australia. In a breakthrough announced in March, Clean Seas claimed a world first by collecting fertilized eggs from breeding stock about 20 tuna weighing 160 kg apiece and kept in a giant indoor tank. Sleek, dark shapes with a line of tiny bright-yellow fins down their back, they circle endlessly, apparently convinced they have traveled far to the north, to their spawning grounds. It may be fall outside, with a sea temperature of 17°C, but inside it's summer, with 14 hours of daylight and water at 23°C.
"Tuna is an ocean fish. They don't like to be confined," Stehr says in a still-strong German accent. "That's how you gotta keep it." The fish are persuaded they're on a long journey by changes in light, temperature and current. Without leaving the tank, they swim out of the Australian Bight, south over the continental shelf and then west and north, around Western Australia and up to their spawning grounds near the Timor Sea. They've now spawned three times and produced eggs and larvae. The next step is to feed the millions of larvae the right plankton so they develop into tiny fish, eventually to be farmed in offshore pens. "Out of 10 steps, we're probably at No. 3 or 4," says Mike Thomson, Clean Seas' research and development manager. The company says it's prepared to spend another $100 million to reach its goal.
Some in the tuna industry are deeply skeptical that Clean Seas will succeed. Even if it does, they doubt the fish it produces will fetch a high enough price to make the operation pay. The naysayers those who spoke to TIME chose to remain anonymous are wrong, argues Peter Dundas-Smith, chairman of the Australian Seafood Cooperative Research Centre, a government-industry joint venture.
There's a huge demand for high-quality species like tuna, he says, and with world population heading for 7 billion, consumption of seafood is growing. The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organisation says demand for fish will rise dramatically in the next few decades, and that aquaculture will be crucial to supplying an extra 40 million metric tons of seafood a year by 2030. "He will crack it; it's only a case of when," Dundas-Smith says of Stehr. "Marketing will be a challenge, but how can you not sell fish when there's a worldwide shortage of the good stuff?"
Southern bluefin is the good stuff it's the ultimate sashimi. Left alone, the tuna lives to 40 and can reach more than 2 m and 200 kg. But it hasn't been left alone. While it can hit speeds of 70 km/h and dive deeper than 500 m, the path of its annual migration, from Indonesia into the waters of southern Australia, is well known to fishing fleets. And since it starts spawning only after nine years and is usually caught much younger, southern bluefin hasn't reproduced enough to repopulate. In the 1960s fishers took 80,000 tons, mostly for tinned food. As stocks dwindled, the catch was limited to around 12,000 tons a year for the Japanese, Australian and New Zealand operators.
Stehr remembers hard days in the 1980s, when the quotas and low prices threatened to wipe out local Port Lincoln operators. Then the tuna men had the brilliant idea of netting their quota of just over 5,000 tons, towing it slowly into the port, and holding it there in pens to be fattened on pilchards and anchovies for a few months. Profits surged as the weight of the average fish doubled to over 32 kg, and links were forged with the lucrative Japanese sashimi trade.
Today Australia exports some 10,000 tons, worth about $200 million most of it frozen. Almost all is harvested, pulled from harbor pens onto waiting ships to be killed. Japanese buyers like Yoshio Koga of Nihon Marine grade the fish by checking flesh in the tail. Koga wants fish that are fat, red and oily, especially in the cherished toro, or belly meat. They can be on sale in Tokyo's giant Tsukiji fish market within three days.
Stehr's catch quota of about 300 tons makes him one of the bigger Australian operators. But if his plan works, by the end of 2009 his company will be selling farm-bred tuna without any quota restrictions. He's aiming for at least 5,000 tons a year.
Won't that drive down tuna prices? With demand for sashimi-grade fish in Japan at about 500,000 tons a year, Stehr insists Clean Seas won't flood the market. In fact, Japan may not be the market Stehr is aiming for, at least initially. Since tuna grow at less than 1 kg a month, stock next year would likely be only around 7 kg, too small for many of Japan's sashimi buyers. Stehr thinks the Japanese may still want the smaller fish, but sees the U.S., China and Europe as alternative markets. Growing global demand will drive up prices, he says: "I used to catch one [metric] ton of tuna for $50. Now we get $76,000 for one fish." That was unusual, though. The Japanese today pay around $23/kg, making an average southern bluefin worth around $650.
And Stehr first must produce some fish. He points out he's already proved doubters wrong by being the first to propagate yellowtail kingfish; he has about 5,000 tons of growing fish in offshore pens at Arno Bay. But tuna can be trickier to deal with. "You look at a fish wrong," he says, "and they keel over." Still, he has no doubt he'll succeed. "We have run the marathon," he says. "We're stepping into the stadium. Even if we fall now, we will crawl inch by inch."