Founded in 1888, the National Geographic Society, one of the largest nonprofit scientific and educational organizations in the world, works to inspire people to care about the planet.

There were two magazines we weren’t allowed to play with when I was growing up: Southern Living and National Geographic. They were the “important” magazines. They were special. Now, an adult and a chef, I know Southern Living undoubtedly helped fuel my love of food and cooking. But, the magazine that has always been closest to my heart is National Geographic.

My first magazine subscription was National Geographic Explorer and as a child, I cherished each and every one. My memory is fuzzy, but I seem to remember the issues were thin and small, about the size of a half sheet of paper. There was a drawing of a man with a pipe and a hat known as “The Explorer.” Soon, the magazine changed its name to World Magazine, and I continued to read every one, cover to cover. All along, the familiar yellow spine meant for the grown-ups came delivered to our home every month, a gift from my grandparents. As soon as I was able, I read that one, too. I couldn’t get enough of exploring, of seeing different people, places, and things.

My grandparents loved to travel in their motor home. Often, my sister and I or a cousin would travel with them. We’d go away for weeks and months at a time every summer. My older cousin Sam went with them to Alaska, a trip I still yearn to take. The next year, they took me to Newfoundland. While on the ferry off the Nova Scotia coast I witnessed a pod of whales rolling in the deep blue water. Later, my sister and I traveled from Georgia clear across the Southwest then north up into the Canadian territory of Saskatchewan before we headed back across the entire United States to Georgia. A stack of National Geographic magazines with the familiar yellow spine and the appropriate maps for our travels, accompanied every trip. In high school, I remember having the National Geographic map of Europe tacked up on my wall; it seemed a million miles away from my red dirt road in South Georgia, but I knew I wanted to go there, and eventually, I did.

To this day, I don’t read National Geographic magazines – I relish them. Each issue is a journey and exploration into a whole new world. National Geographic fulfilled its mission with me; it inspired me to care about the planet.

Yet, today I feel betrayed, heartbroken, and sick. The National Geographic Channel will debut a show this spring called “Wicked Tuna”, a reality series that follows the lives of tuna fisherman in Gloucester, Massachusetts. According to media reports the series is part of a joint venture between Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation and the National Geographic Society. Seemingly, the last vestige of what I thought should be beautiful and pure and good is not. It would be comic if it weren’t so tragic and absurd. It seems that the National Geographic channel has made a veritable pact with the devil.

Two years ago, Nat Geo proclaimed the “Eleventh Hour” for tuna and sharks. On its own website, National Geographic states: Bluefin tuna have been eaten by humans for centuries. However, in the 1970s, demand and prices for large bluefins soared worldwide, particularly in Japan, and commercial fishing operations found new ways to find and catch these sleek giants. As a result, bluefin stocks, especially of large, breeding-age fish, have plummeted, and international conservation efforts have led to curbs on commercial takes. Nevertheless, at least one group says illegal fishing in Europe has pushed the Atlantic bluefin populations there to the brink of extinction. 

It’s an absolute disgrace. It’s wicked in the true sense of the word, evil and morally wrong.  The producer, Craig Piligian of Pilgrim Studios is quoted as saying, “Commercial tuna fishing is brutally competitive. With its limited season, the intelligence and prowess of the fish, and the sheer fact that they’re worth so much, the livelihood of each vessel’s crew can be made or broken in a month.” 

National Geographic is capitalizing on and exploiting the very species they have declared to be on the verge of extinction.

The Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch states consumers should “Avoid” all bluefin tuna, referencing the near collapse of bluefin populations worldwide. Last year, the Center for Biological Diversity submitted a petition to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration seeking an endangered status for the fish, claiming the species faces possible extinction because of overfishing and habitat degradation. Ocean Conservancy states the species is overfished. The Pew Charitable Trust states, “Some species of tuna, such as the valuable Atlantic bluefin tuna, are dangerously over-exploited.” Pew’s Global Tuna Conservation Campaign is urging countries fishing for tuna to “enact strong measures that will lead to the recovery of severely depleted Atlantic bluefin tuna population, including suspension of the fishery and prohibit take of Atlantic bluefin tuna on its only known spawning grounds.” The list of organizations against bluefin fishing goes on and on and on.

As a chef and food writer, I care about the food I prepare, the food I eat. I work to educate my students and readers about responsible and sustainable food. As the National Geographic Society mission states, I work to inspire people to care about the planet.

John Fahey, Chairman & CEO of the National Geographic Society should hang his head in shame. At minimum, he and the National Geographic Channel have some serious explaining to do. If you’d like to let the National Geographic Society know what you think of Wicked Tuna, please shoot them a note to comments@natgeochannel.com

Sincerely,
Virginia Willis
Chef and cookbook author

CC:
Editor, the Washington Post
Editor, the New York Times

Photo credit: Virginia Willis

UPDATE: 1/24/12 MANY OF THE COMMENTS BELOW ARE FROM HARD-WORKING FISHERMEN WITH FAMILIES TO SUPPORT. VERY CLEARLY, WE DISAGREE ON CERTAIN POINTS. THE DIALOGUE HAS BECOME QUITE HEATED. WHILE I DO NOT APPRECIATE NAME-CALLING AND PERSONAL SLURS, I DO APPRECIATE THE PASSION AND EXPERIENCE THAT THEY BRING TO THE CONVERSATION.THANK YOU FOR READING.

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