Outrageously Expensive Tuna Actually a High-Profile PR Stunt

Japanese sushi chain will lose more than $600K on the fish, but is betting on major publicity from the purchase.
Better than a Super Bowl ad: A 593-pound tuna caught off the coast of Japan was sold for $736,234 in the country's first fish auction of the year. NOAA estimates the sushi chain will lose $600K on the purchase. (Photo: Kim Kyung-Hoon/Reuters)
Jan 5, 2012· 1 MIN READ
Clare Leschin-Hoar's stories on seafood and food politics have appeared in Scientific American, Eating Well and elsewhere.

Another bluefin tuna made a splash on the record books at Japan’s famed Tsukiji market this morning. The 593-pound whopper brought in a staggering bid of nearly $740,000 from Tokyo-based Kiyomura Company, owner of the Sushi-Zanmai chain. It’s the most expensive fish ever sold, and dwarfs last year’s record of $396,000 for a 754-pound bluefin.

But there's no way the sushi chain is going to make a profit on their investment—at least not in restaurant receipts. Brad McHale, fishery management specialist in NOAA Fisheries’ Office of Highly Migratory Species in Gloucester, did the math:

“This bluefin tuna was purchased for $736,000; assuming the 593 lb is a dress weight, the price/lb was $1,241, or $77.60 an ounce. The CNN article states an order will sell for about $5, and assuming an order of nigiri or sashimi weighs about an ounce, this means he will earn (before he pays for salaries/other costs in preparing this fish) about $80/lb or $47,400 if the whole fish is used in his restaurant. This means the Sushi-Zanmai chain will see a loss of -$688,560 for this purchase,” he says in an email.

According to Time, the bluefin tuna was caught in Oma, an area struck by last year’s earthquake and resulting tsunami. Kiyomura Company’s owner, Kioshi Kimura, reportedly offered the winning bid as a means of delivering a morale boost.

“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 sprits urging people to work harder together,” he told The Wall Street Journal.

As TakePart reported last year, purchases at the first Tsukiji market of the year are often symbolically inflated. Most industry watchers see the exorbitant price as a public relations maneuver, and Kimura’s quote seems to support that. But outlandish prices for bluefin can also skew other news coverage. Take the recent news of the New England fisherman who accidently caught a bluefin tuna without a permit, and was required to turn it over to authorities.

“The news media covered the story and wrote over and over again that the fisherman had lost out on an $800,000 fish. Our efforts to correct the misinformation that the fish would have sold for less than that didn’t get too far, unfortunately,” says NOAA spokesperson, Christine Patrick.

In fact, once NOAA Law Enforcement had possession of the seized bluefin, it sold for the going rate of $5,000.

Too bad that fisherman didn't have a restaurant business to promote.