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Red Gold

The Managed Extinction of the Giant Bluefin Tuna

University of Minnesota Press, 2020

Illuminating the conditions for global governance to have precipitated the devastating decline of one of the ocean’s most majestic creatures

The International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) is the world’s foremost organization for managing and conserving tunas, seabirds, turtles, and sharks traversing international waters. Founded by treaty in 1969, ICCAT stewards what has become under its tenure one of the planet’s most prominent endangered fish: the Atlantic bluefin tuna. Called “red gold” by industry insiders for the exorbitant price her ruby-colored flesh commands in the sushi economy, the giant bluefin tuna has crashed in size and number under ICCAT’s custodianship.


With regulations to conserve these sea creatures in place for half a century, why have so many big bluefin tuna vanished from the Atlantic? In Red Gold, Jennifer E. Telesca offers unparalleled access to ICCAT to show that the institution has faithfully executed the task assigned it by international law: to fish as hard as possible to grow national economies. ICCAT manages the bluefin not to protect them but to secure export markets for commodity empires—and, as a result, has become complicit in their extermination.

Decades of regulating fish as commodities have had disastrous consequences. Amid the mass extinction of all kinds of life today, Red Gold reacquaints the reader with the splendors of the giant bluefin tuna through vignettes that defy technoscientific, market rationales. Ultimately, this book shows, changing the way people value marine life must come not only from reforming ICCAT but from transforming the dominant culture that consents to this slaughter.

Both unusually thorough and unusually heartfelt, Red Gold is filled with high quality factual detail yet is framed with graceful, thoughtfully considered language. As close as I’ve been to this extraordinary fish as a living creature and as the object of intense debate and conflicting policies over the years, I admire the job Jennifer Telesca has pulled off. I also learned a lot.

Carl Safina, author of Song for the Blue Ocean and Becoming Wild

Engaging and well-argued, Red Gold is an exemplary documentation of how bad-faith science conducted at the behest of corporate interests provides cover for the over-exploitation of ‘natural resources.’

Daniel Pauly, author of Vanishing Fish: Shifting Baselines and the Future of Global Fisheries

Red Gold offers a deep and disturbing portrait of the intersecting impacts of the global food chain, international regulation, and ocean conservation. Jennifer E. Telesca’s powerful prose and analytic insight chart the drama of human-induced species decline in the name of conservation. Combining ethnography, political economy, legal studies, and scientific research with fast-paced storytelling, she provides an intimate account of ocean governance and environmental loss.

Brenda Chalfin, author of Neoliberal Frontiers: An Ethnography of Sovereignty in West Africa

Jennifer E. Telesca’s wide-ranging study of the giant bluefin tuna challenges many deeply held dogmas. We overfish because of the tragedy of the commons and think the solution is regulation. But Telesca argues that we are regulating our way to extinction. The tragedy is not of the commons, but of commodification. The drive to extinction will not stop until we value these animals as fellow travelers on this planet, rather than as resources from whom we can extract value.

Dale Jamieson, director, Center for Environmental and Animal Protection,
New York University 

Red Gold is available for purchase now. Please support a not-for-profit through your purchase directly from the University of Minnesota Press.

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