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Dwindling Delicacy: Tuna

Dwindling Delicacy: Tuna

For thousands of years there has been no bigger prize to catch than the tuna. These large, muscular fish are a source of income for fishermen and a delicacy for those fortunate to afford them. Over the past seven years, University of Arkansas professor of classical studies, Daniel Levine, has dived into the ocean of knowledge to catch the story of the tuna during the time the Greeks dominated the Mediterranean. Along the way, he found something else swimming in his nets: a plight that is causing this one-time king of the sea to be on the verge of collapse.

“The ancient peoples of the Mediterranean valued the tuna immensely. From the Pillars of Heracles in the west to the Black Sea in the East, from Sicily to Sardinia, they hunted and consumed this fish in earnest. The ancients delighted in its taste and profited by its harvest. They wrote about tuna, drew pictures of tuna and inscribed their images on coins. This delicacy inspired poets and playwrights, attracted the attention of scientists and geographers and served as sacrificial offerings to the gods themselves,” Levine said.

Stories persist through the literature showing the love the ancients had for the fish.  One of these stories, relayed by Levine, was first told by sixth-century BCE poet Hipponax of Ephesus and shows how the love can be so consuming, it can cause a rich man to become poor.

“For one of them, dining at his ease and lavishly every day on female tuna and savory sauce like a eunuch from Lampsacus ate up his inheritance; as a result now he has to dig a rocky hillside, munching on cheap figs and coarse barley bread, fodder for slaves.”

As with any food, though, preparation and cooking is vital. Improper cooking techniques will ruin the fish. Levine shares the recipe of the Greek poet, Archestratus of Gela.

“And have a tail-cut from the she-tunny–the large she-tunny, I repeat, whose mother-city is Byzantium. Slice it and roast it all rightly, sprinkling just a little salt, and buttering it with oil…But if you serve it sprinkled with vinegar, it is ruined.”

Before the fish could be enjoyed, though, it had to be caught. Like any good fishermen, the ancient Greeks needed to understand where and when they could find their coveted prize. The key to this was knowing, at least in part, the migration patterns of the fish. The fact that fish migrated was an added bonus to the Greeks who, by understanding the migration patterns, both increased their success in catching the fish and captivated their scientific curiosity.

“Aristotle and others carefully observed these migrations in the narrow channels of the Propontus near Byzantium and made a strange observation about the tuna’s eyesight as a result: ‘The tunny swim inwards while keeping the shore to the right; some say they do this because they see more sharply with the right eye, not having sharp sight by nature,'” Levine said.

The idea of poor visibility out of the left eye persists throughout the literature and gives us the story of the bright stone. The story, relayed by Levine, was recorded by Pliny the Elder, a Roman author, and says that a bright stone, shining from the bottom of the Asiatic side of the Bosporus near Chalcedon frightened the tuna so much that they started to swim towards Byzantium, directly opposite Chalcedon. The fishermen in Byzantium were then able to have a great catch. Aiding in the catch was a fresh estuary that flowed into the Bosporus close to the walls of the city. Young tuna would enter the estuary and become trapped, allowing for an easy catch. The richness of the catch led to the nickname “Golden Horn” for the inlet.

The ancient Greeks often prayed to the gods for help and made sacrifices following a great catch. In one instance, a bull that had alerted the fishermen to the tuna was even sacrificed as an offering to Poseidon.

A bull nowadays would not have such success in alerting us to the presence of the fish simply because the numbers of tuna have greatly declined, as fishing tools and techniques have improved. As the population has declined, the price has increased. In January 2012, a Bluefin tuna, weighing 593 pounds, sold for a record $736,000 in an auction at the Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo. That equates to $1,238 per pound, or $24 a slice.

“Like the ancients, we use elaborate and efficient means of catching the tuna, which have become an important part of our diet and our economy. But the main difference between ‘then’ and ‘now’ consists in our present power to put an end to the existence of this species, due to two other characteristics we share with the ancient Greeks: we love to eat the best fish and we are clever hunters,” Levine said.

Unless something is done, it can be certain this fish, which has been a luxury for the wealthy from ancient times to the present day, will not survive and that future civilizations will never know the taste, the texture or the allure that tuna has offered this world for thousands of years.

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