Big data may ensure sustainable sushi

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Source: dennis.tang/Flickr

Back in 1970, well before the eating of raw fish became so popular among global gourmands, bluefin tuna, the fish that becomes the delectable Maguro sushi and sashimi on our plates, sold for about five cents a pound. Last year, in a Tokyo fish market one Bluefin tuna sold for nearly three quarters of a million dollars or $1,238 per pound, reflecting in dramatic form the worldwide popularity of the fish.

In Japan there has been some discussion as to whether the nation's love affair with Maguro is pushing the bluefin tuna to extinction. After all, Japan consumes about 80% of the world's annual bluefin tuna catch. Its imports of the prized fish soared from 340 tons in 1970 to more than 36,000 tons in 2005, on top of the domestic catch of more than 15,000 tons.

While the fish is not on the U.S.'s endangered species list, it is widely thought to be massively overfished, through legal and illegal means, and is considered "a species of concern" by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. However, the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) does impose quotas on how many bluefin can be caught.

By now, you might have guessed that big data is coming to the rescue – and you'd be right. Modeling big data sets about bluefin breeding habits and migration patterns could well save the bluefin population and an epicurean's Maguro. In that effort, scientists and fishing industry experts are mining NOAA's Comprehensive Large Array-data Stewardship System (CLASS). It began in 2005 as a project to “provide one-stop shopping and access" to its myriad of massive environmental data sets. Currently, CLASS stores more than 20 petabytes of information and adds more 750 gigabytes each week.

These data are vital for decision-makers at international governing bodies to dictate if, how, and when changes are made to fishing limits or even bans on bluefin tuna. As the Environmental Group at the Pew Charitable Trust put it: "These assessments use historical catch data, scientific studies, and mathematical models to simulate and track a population as fish are produced, grow, reproduce, and die. They also allow scientists to predict how various management options will affect bluefin tuna in the future."

Without big data, our understanding of the bluefin tuna's future would be dim. But with it, we may sustain the species in the ocean while continuing to savor it on our plates.

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