Record Price Blows Bluefin's Future Out of the Water

Being worth almost $400,000 isn&39;t much of a consolation to the fish. (Photo: KYODO Kyodo/Reuters)

Jan 5, 2011· 1 MIN READ
A six-time grantee of the National Geographic Expeditions Council, Jon writes about all things ocean.

For a variety of reasons—primarily overfishing and hoarding—I’ve been predicting for the past couple of years that within the next decade we will see a bluefin tuna sold in Japan for $500,000, even $1 million.

Looks like we won’t have to wait that long.

Before dawn Wednesday morning, at the first-day of the new year sale at Tokyo’s monstrous Tsukiji Central Fish Market, a new price record was set for a single fish: $396,000 for a 754 pound bluefin. The record price works out to $527 per pound of meat.

The fish, caught off the Japanese island of Hokkaido, has no special ju-ju. It won’t taste any better than any of the other 538 bluefin sold Wednesday at the market's two daily morning auctions.

The big fish is special only because it was the first sold in 2011. The opening day of the New Year at Tsukiji is known as the “celebratory market.” In a nation that lives for seafood—the Japanese consume 80 percent of the Atlantic and bluefin tunas caught each year—being first clearly counts for a lot.

A pair of restaurant owners from Tokyo and Hong Kong bought the big fish. They are trusting that their top clients and strangers alike will make pilgrimages to their stylish Tokyo sushi bar or one of several Hong Kong-based restaurants for a taste of the first-of-the-year fish, and pay upward of $100 per bite for the chance.

“What a relief I was able to buy this fish,” Ricky Cheng, owner of the Itamae Sushi chain, part of Hong Kong’s Taste of Japan group, told reporters gathered at the market for the spectacle. “We wanted to get it for good luck, even if we lose money.” His partner in the purchase owns a high-end sushi bar in Tokyo’s Ginza district.

The World Wildlife Fund has been pressuring Cheng’s restaurant chain to stop serving all bluefin and demanding it not participate in the “symbolic bidding.”

Several coordinated governmental efforts were made in 2010 to slow the catch of bluefin. They largely failed, leaving the big, speedy fish closer to extinction, in large part due to Japan’s voracious appetite and keen lobbying skills.

The Mitsubishi Company, which controls an estimated 40 percent of all sales of bluefin in Japan, is watching all this activity from the sidelines. Tons of bluefin is put on the market, but huge amounts also go straight into giant freezers. The company is counting on the day when bluefin will no longer be available in the wild. The only stocks remaining will be frozen.

That’s when, I predict, we’ll see the $1 million bluefin.