Each January for the last several, we have celebrated the New Year with unlimited excess—not only the gluttonous, gammony kind, but the excess which heralds the year’s first auction of a gargantuan bluefin tuna at the Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo, Japan. Each time, one fish, whose flesh is prized as an expensive delicacy in sushi restaurants, becomes a symbol of the New Year in this way.
Last January’s tuna sold for a record-breaking £1.1 million (155.4 million yen), more than double the price it claimed in 2012, upholding a tradition that has seen that initial coveted bluefin growing increasingly expensive each year.
This past Sunday, everyone braced themselves for yet another mind-bending price surge, expecting the bid to reach far over £1 million. Yet, despite its larger size this time, the 230-kilogram fish sold for the equivalent of only five percent of last year’s winning bid, fetching just £43,000 pounds from restaurateur Kiyoshi Kimura. He is the same bidder who won the last two auctions as well.
This year’s fish carries the lowest price tag in five years. Some sources speculate this is because of the greater availability of bluefin tuna at another fish market in Japan this year, or due perhaps to other bidders backing out, intimidated by Kimura’s formidable reputation at the auction. Either way, as before, this particular price reflects nothing about the conservation status of Pacific bluefin tuna—a population that was found recently to have dropped to less than four percent of its unfished levels—because the auction is too separated from reality to ever function as a yardstick.
Last year, the auction came under critical fire for attaching the excessive price tag to the prize tuna, as conservation groups drew attention to the danger of heightening demand for a creature that is already being overfished. But this latest number, so dramatically lowered, cannot be used to quell fears. The wildly fluctuating price demonstrates only that the auction is subjective and distorted, dictated almost entirely by the bidders’ wealth and whims. And even despite this dramatic dip in price, which inches the fish a little closer to its actual market value, conservationists say it cannot begin to reflect the priceless nature of the fish population overall.
So how are we to feel about someone slapping a strip of otoro—the bluefin tuna’s most prized belly meat—on a plate and serving it to a few thousand lucky sushi connoisseurs?
“We don’t talk about whether you should eat it or not, we talk about whether it’s overfished or not,” says Sarah Shoffler, fishery biologist and coordinator for the US delegation to the International Scientific Committee for Tuna and Tuna-like Species in the North Pacific Ocean (ISC). This was the organisation that showed in January last year that Pacific bluefin tuna populations have dropped 96.4% from their unfished levels, with a striking 90% of the catch made up of younger, smaller specimens that might not yet have reproduced.
These findings focused the limelight on two international bodies that have the power to regulate the fishery of this species across the Pacific, one of which, called the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission, includes members like the United States, and Japan, the world’s largest consumer of Pacific bluefin tuna. Yet the two organizations’ 2013 policy response to the ISC’s ominous report was weak, says Amanda Nickson, director of Global Tuna Conservation at the Pew Charitable Trusts. “They both failed [last] year to decrease the catch from current levels,” she says.
The Pacific bluefin is a highly productive fish. “Spawning females can put out millions of eggs each year,” Shoffler says. Currently, scientists have no evidence that this so-called ‘recruitment’ of new fish generations has reduced. However, there’s no doubt that the tuna can be classified as overfished, based on its massive overall population dip. “It’s not just that they’re catching the small [younger] fish, it’s that they’re catching so many of them”—and have been doing this for so long—that is a cause for concern, Shoffler explains.
For stocks to improve, Nickson lists an oft-repeated string of solutions. “There should be a scientifically informed catch limit for this species, and there should be a minimum size limit,” she says, adding that next on the conservation wish list is the establishment of an initial ten-year recovery plan for Pacific bluefin.
But with the fish auction becoming such a firm annual fixture, all that is hard to imagine. “There is no doubt that the ongoing demand for the bluefin tuna species is a major factor in challenges to managing the fishery,” Nickson says.