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Threatened Bluefin Tuna Sells for Record $3 Million in New Year’s Sale

The 612-pound fish will go to a sushi restaurant, but without intervention the prized species will not be on the plate for much longer

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Last Saturday, during the annual New Year’s fish auction in Tokyo, restaurateur Kiyoshi Kimura paid an astonishing $3.1 million for a single 612-pound Pacific bluefin tuna, breaking a record set in 2013 reports the Associated Press. While the sale emphasizes how important bluefin tuna is to the sushi industry, it also highlights the plight of the fish, which has declined by 96 percent since about 1950.

Kimura is the owner of the Sushi Zanmai sushi chain, which will slice about 12,000 servings of tuna from the mega-fish, reports Francesca Paris for NPR. Even so, the price Kimura paid is a bit much. While bluefin often sells for about $40 per pound in Japan and can jump to $200 per pound depending on the time of year and its origin, Kimura paid about $5,000 per pound for the big fish, more than doubling the previous record of $1.76 million he paid for a smaller tuna in 2013.

Soon after the sale, Reuters reports that Kimura told reporters outside the market that he may have gone a bit too far trying to outbid the competition. “The tuna looks so tasty and very fresh, but I think I did too much,” he said. “I expected it would be between 30 million and 50 million yen, or 60 million yen at the highest, but it ended up five times more.”

The extra cash, however, was probably more about pride and publicity than the fish itself, Reuters reports. Kimura held the record for the top price paid for a fish at the New Year’s auction for six years straight, until last year when another restaurateur outbid him. This year he regained the title and also helped inaugurate the new Toyosu fish market, which recently opened on the Tokyo oceanfront after the world-renowned Tsukiji fish market closed last year to make way for parking for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Buying the first tuna of the year is considered a prestigious honor, reports Svati Kirsten Narula for The Atlantic.

But Jamie Gibbon, associate manager of global tuna conservation at The Pew Charitable Trusts, tells Simon Denyer and Akiko Kashiwagi at The Washington Post says there's no honor in pushing the fish further toward extinction. “The celebration surrounding the annual Pacific bluefin auction hides how deeply in trouble this species really is,” he says. “Its population has fallen to less than 3.5 percent of its historic size and overfishing still continues today.”

The species, Thunnus orientalis, is currently listed as vulnerable to extinction by the IUCN, the international organization that manages the global endangered species list. In 2017, Japan and other governments implemented a set of fishing quotas and restrictions to try and rebuild the fish stocks over the next 16 years. The restrictions, however, are causing consternation in fishing areas like the village of Oma, where the record fish was caught using traditional fishing methods. The Post reports that Japan and other nations are already lobbying to raise some of the established quotas.

The irony of the big prices brought in by bluefin is that, until relatively recently, tuna was considered a trash fish in Japan. Trevor Corson reports for The Atlantic that until the 20th century, the smell and metallic taste of tuna meant it was considered peasant food on the island nation. People did everything from fermenting it to marinating it in soy sauce to get rid of the tuna taste — even today’s prized toro, or tuna belly, was often turned into cat food.

But in the 1960s and 1970s, as sushi caught on in the United States, so did the fattier cuts of tuna. Between 1970 and 1990, bluefin fishing increased 2,000 percent in the western Atlantic, and prices for the fish exported to Japan jumped 10,000 percent, leading to the massive declines in bluefin stocks, reports Narula in The Atlantic.

So what can be done for the bluefin? The simplest answer is don’t order it, as reducing demand is the best way to stop overfishing. Instead, the Monterey Bay Aquarium suggests getting a little more adventurous and opting for more sustainable sushi choices like sardines, Arctic char, and albacore tuna bellies.

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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