Bluefin Sells for Record $735,000: In New Year, Same Threats for Tuna in Japan

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Shizuo Kambayashi / AP

Kiyoshi Kimura, left, cuts a bluefin tuna in front of his restaurant near Tokyo's Tsukiji fish market on Jan. 5, 2012. The fish fetched over $735,000, making it the most expensive tuna ever sold

Tokyo’s famed Tsukiji market rang in the first auction of 2012 with a record sale when a local sushi company bought a 593-lb. (269 kg) bluefin tuna for over $735,000. Weighing in at roughly $1,247 a pound, that’s the most expensive tuna ever sold at Japan’s largest wholesale fish market, or anywhere else, for that matter, beating last year’s high price by over $260,ooo.

The giant was caught in Oma in Japan’s northern Aomori prefecture, one of the areas hit in last year’s earthquake and tsunami. It’s also one of Japan’s most important fishing zones. Fishermen up and down the coast of northeast Japan have been struggling since many of their boats were swept to sea and the ports and markets were destroyed in the disasters.

In the past, Japan’s record-breaking tunas have been coveted by foreign companies. (Last year’s went in part to Hong Kong.) But this year the winning bid went to Tokyo-based Kiyomura Co. Owner Kiyoshi Kimura told the Wall Street Journal that he wanted the fish to deliver a boost of umami morale for Japan. “Rather than having it taken away overseas, I wish for Japanese people to eat good tuna together. Despite the March 11 earthquake and the sluggish economy, I want to lift up Japan’s spirits urging people to work hard together,” he said.

If any fish could do that, bluefin could. The nation consumes 80% of the world’s catch of bluefin tuna, an enormous, long-living and slow-maturing predator loved for its rich, fatty meat and whose various populations are becoming more and more depleted around the world. Though a lot of the tuna eaten in Japan now comes from the Mediterranean and the Atlantic, Japan has its own local population off the northeast coast whose catch props up many small seaside towns like Oma.

Though the Japanese government has not supported international trade bans on some of the world’s most depleted bluefin stocks, the fishermen in Oma have themselves appealed to Tokyo for restraint in the past, saying that their fishing grounds, too, are under threat. Traditional fishermen in Oma use handheld lines to catch the enormous tuna one by one, but larger boats, both Japanese and foreign, use massive nets to trawl the waters, catching young fish along with the old and, in turn, depleting the population. In 2009, the president of the Oma fishermen’s co-op called on the national government to place a three-year moratorium on netting and trawling for the fish.

That kind of appeal would probably not fly very well today, since the recovery of the fishing industry has understandably become a symbol for the recovery of the Japanese coast after the devastation of March 11. Fishermen need to get back to work to keep morale up and local economies ticking. And yet the underlying strain on the resource they are using remains. The Pacific bluefin (the population of bluefin native to Japan) is perhaps not in as bad shape as some others, but it’s not in good shape either. Like the other groups, it is being fished faster than it can reproduce.

And it remains on the top sustainable-seafood guides’ no-no lists, despite the fact that the record-breaking meat started selling today at Kiyomura’s sushi outlets in Tokyo for bargain prices. Sushi lovers can buy a slice of the world’s most expensive tuna for between $2 to $6, depending on the piece. The expensive treat might momentarily give citizens’ weary spirits a lift, but it’s a cheap way to do it.