When she was in college, Shana Miller spent a summer on Martha’s Vineyard fishing for her dinner because she didn’t have enough money to buy food for herself. A lack of food security created in her a greater appreciation of the ocean environment, eventually leading this would-be primate scientist to build a career around saving one of the ocean’s top predators, bluefin tuna, which are in danger of being overfished.
Miller is director of the Tag-a-Giant program, a one-woman organization with the mission of "reversing the decline of northern bluefin tuna populations by supporting the scientific research necessary to develop innovative and effective policy and conservation initiatives." Tag-a-Giant has collected electronic tagging data for the last 15 years. Miller runs the program out of her home on Long Island, NY and her ecosystem of research extends to a school of scientists in oceans all around the planet.
Bluefin tuna have a remarkable biology for a fish. They can live up to 40 years in the western Atlantic. They may not mature until 11 to 15 years old. So they are really on par with human maturity.
Miller also advocates for stronger ocean conservation policies and sits on several advisory panels to the U.S. Government about bluefin tuna management. Needless to say, she has a full plate. We took some time to talk about the tuna, her life and what questions to ask the next time you order sushi.
Below, a taste of our conversation. You can listen to the whole interview by clicking on the audio player to the right, or subscribe to the GRACE podcast for more Hero interviews.
Tell me about the Tag-A-Giant program. What is your mission?
Tag-A-Giant is a group that does primarily research on bluefin tuna both in the Atlantic and Pacific. Bluefin tuna are one of the largest fish in the sea and they undertake great migrations across ocean basins; they get up to being 1500 pounds, so as big as a Volkswagen, a true giant fish. And so we research them and then we take our research data, our results, and we try to get those results incorporated into management and conservation of the fish.
Tell me about blue fin. You've told me before that they live to be 40 years old, which is amazing.
Yes, bluefin tuna are remarkable, have a remarkable biology for a fish. They can live up to 40 years in the Atlantic, in the western Atlantic. They may not mature until 11 to 15 years old. So they are really on par with human maturity. They are warm-bodied, in that they can maintain their body temperature up to 22 degrees Celsius above the water temperature. So they really have a unique biology that unfortunately makes them susceptible to overfishing. But they can spawn up to 10 million eggs in a single year, so they have the potential to recover very quickly if given the opportunity.
So why are bluefin so important? I know they are at the top of the food chain, but how are they important overall, in terms of ocean ecosystems?
They are, of course, like you said, a top predator. There are very few animals that prey upon them. White sharks and Orcas, killer whales, are really the only fish that will eat an adult bluefin tuna. So of course their position in the food chain is important. They also have a long history of being a part of human civilization. Homer wrote about them in The Odyssey. Salvador Dali, more recently, painted them. They are on ancient Roman—featured in ancient Roman works, featured on Roman coins, so they are also part of the human ecosystem. But otherwise, as far as the ocean ecosystem, really their contribution as a top predator is vital.
Did you always want to do marine stuff? Or how did you transition into this?
No, actually my focus was primates, primatology, monkeys, chimpanzees, in undergrad. And then I started fishing one summer in Martha’s Vineyard because I didn’t have enough money to buy food for myself so I had to catch my own food, and then really was captivated by the ocean environment. And of course, there're many fewer people passionate about bluefin tuna as compared to a chimpanzee. So that’s when I made the switch and the electronic tagging research that Dr. Block does is really second to none, and just hooked me. No pun intended.