PORTLAND, Maine — From sushi to steaks to the crustless sandwich in a school kid’s lunchbox, tuna is everywhere. According to worldwide environmental organization Greenpeace, that’s the problem. They warn that the global demand for the versatile fish is fueling an industry that’s overfishing the oceans, decimating other marine life and exploiting its workers.

This fall, Portland artist Aaron Staples, 35, teamed up with Greenpeace to try to do something about it.

Staples created three 4-by-3-foot paintings of the the most sought after tuna species to be the face of the organization’s “Not Just Tuna” campaign. Greenpeace wants consumers to only buy sustainable, ethical and fair tuna products.

“It’s really an honor,” Staples said, sipping coffee at a shop beside his West End home where he paints. “I’m very proud to be able to lend my small voice to this larger campaign in a meaningful way.”

Staples works in the Asian sumi-e style, using only black ink made from lamp soot. He grew up in Lincoln and Bar Harbor, coming to Portland to study graphic design at the Maine College of Art. While taking a Japanese calligraphy course, as a break from computer-intensive classes, he was introduced to the technique. The brush, as opposed to a pen, gives him control over the flow and width of each line, creating subtle variations and apparent depth.

“You just kind of get into this spot where everything else is swept from your mind except concentrating on the movement of that liquid,” he said. “It is a very meditative state.”

Staples makes his living painting commissioned pieces and creating company logos. He was introduced to Greenpeace through The VIA agency, an advertising firm in Portland where he used to work.

“They commissioned three pieces, one each to sort of focus on the issues of the tuna industry,” he said.

Greenpeace communications director Molly Dorozenski said the organization was impressed by Staples’ previous work that drew on the natural world for inspiration, as well as his ability to convey a message without words.

“We were immediately taken with his ability to distill complex ideas into beautiful and captivating visual stories,” she said in an email. “Because the Not Just Tuna campaign shows how current methods of fishing tuna impact, both the diversity of marine life and the humans who are working in terrible conditions, we knew we needed a special artist to be able to illustrate that complexity. Furthermore, our campaign is global, but Aaron’s images don’t need to be translated — they tell the entire story of the campaign in images.”

Within Staples’ large images of the fish themselves are detailed scenes of overfishing, bycatch and the human toll of tuna fishing.

A vertical image of an albacore, illustrates the problems with long lining, showing the unintended catch.

“It’s basically miles and miles of lines that are set out with baited hooks, and it really just picks up anything in the ocean: Turtles, sharks and seabirds are often caught on the indiscriminate hooks,” Staples said. “It’s heartbreaking. You wonder how people can do this. But, you know, these are people who really have no choice. They are trying to fill the boat as fast as they can and make as much money as possible and they are receiving, generally, slave wages. It’s the major companies which are sanctioning this cruelty.”

Which leads to his depiction of a yellowfin, showing the harrowing conditions many of the workers face.

“There are stories of people’s experiences on these boats that are absolutely horrific,” he said. “Life is worth very little at sea.”

The third images is of a skipjack. It shows a “fish aggregating device,” a man-made object floating on the surface, tethered to the bottom.

“It sort of becomes this shoal where smaller fish will come to hide, larger fish pursue them and it creates a sort of ecosystem, floating in the middle of the ocean.”

Then fishing vessels come with large nets and scoop up everything — tuna or not.

“It’s basically bear-baiting at sea,” Staples added.

Greenpeace paid Staples to create the large paintings, but because he believes in their cause, he gave them a substantial discount. He usually doesn’t keep close track of how long it takes to create a piece, but a film crew watched him make the final image of the skipjack and it took a full 80 hours.

“If I was to break them down hourly, it would be less than minimum wage,” he said.

The organization will display the paintings and disseminate the digital copies throughout the coming year to raise awareness of the tuna-related issues. Eventually, the originals will be auctioned off at a fundraising gala.

Staples said he understands that art alone won’t change anything. People must stop buying tuna from the worst offending companies.

“It’s easy to become pessimistic. It’s basically money that motivates any sort of change,” he said. “But working with Greenpeace amplifies my voice more than I could do on my own.”

He hopes people looking at his images will have conversations they might not otherwise have had and make them think twice about their choice of tuna sandwich filling.

“All we can do is say something. Whether or not we change somebody’s mind, at least we can say we tried and did what we thought was right,” he said.

Troy R. Bennett

Troy R. Bennett is a Buxton native and longtime Portland resident whose photojournalism has appeared in media outlets all over the world.