At $1.76M, This Bluefin Tuna Better Become Pretty Amazing Sushi

As bluefin stocks plummet, demand remains high. A 500-pound specimen was sold for a record-setting price last weekend.

Spending exorbitant amounts on the first bluefin of the year at Tokyo's Tsukiji fishmarket is a PR stunt that could have real consequences. (Photo: Per-Andre Hoffmann/Getty Images)

Clare Leschin-Hoar's stories on seafood and food politics have appeared in Scientific American, Eating Well and elsewhere.

A single 489-pound Pacific bluefin tuna sold for a record $1.76 million at Japan’s famous Tsukiji fish market over the weekend. Smashing last year’s record by nearly $1 million, the tuna is the most expensive fish ever sold at a jaw-dropping $3,603 per pound, or roughly $178 per piece of sushi.

While it’s considered an honor to buy the first bluefin of the year, it’s also a recognized publicity stunt that garners worldwide attention. The bluefin, caught off northeastern Japan, will be carved into approximately 10,000 pieces; winning bidder and sushi chain owner Kiyoshi Kimura said the company would serve the tuna to customers at regular prices. According to the BBC, Japan consumes more than half of the world’s bluefin catch, and companies like Mitsubishi Corporation (that’s right, the automobile maker) is known to stockpile frozen bluefin carcasses.

The exorbitant price is not a reflection of the current market, but could it be a glimpse into the future of further dwindling bluefin stocks and an increasingly voracious worldwide appetite for sushi? Maybe.

The International Scientific Committee for Tuna and Tuna-Like Species in the North Pacific Ocean (ISC) is scheduled to release a new stock assessment for Pacific bluefin. NOAA officials tell TakePart the new assessment report will be posted late today. You will be able to find it here. The news is not expected to be good.

Unlike Atlantic bluefin, which had set catch quotas put in place by the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tuna (ICCAT) in recent years, in response to increased international pressure to act on declining stocks, Pacific bluefin are managed differently.

“Pacific bluefin is still being targeted in its only spawning and nursery areas in the Western Pacific. There are still no hard catch limits in place to ensure sustainability, and a lot of the bluefin caught are juveniles,” Amanda Nickson, director of the global tuna conservation campaign for Pew Environment Group, tells TakePart.

All three species of bluefin tuna are under enormous pressure from global appetite. Atlantic bluefin stocks are at 36 percent of historic population levels. Southern bluefin stocks are even worse at only 3-8 percent of historic levels.

Environmentalists are worried the publicity will increase demand for bluefin.

“You’re seeing a situation with bluefin tuna, that in our view, it’s simply preposterous,” says Nickson. “How much is the last bluefin going to cost?”

UPDATE (1/9):  Just three days after the sale of the $1.7 million bluefin, the ISC released its new stock assessment for Pacific bluefin. The news is dire. The Pacific bluefin population has dropped 96.4 percent after decades of overfishing.

“There currently are no limits to the catches of Pacific bluefin. The valuation of them has become utterly obscene,” Carl Safina, founder of Blue Ocean Institute and longtime advocate for bluefin tuna, tells TakePart. “When fish are worth over a million dollar each, and they’ve been depleted by more than 95%, we are probably very willing to catch the last one. These fish have become too valued dead to be allowed to live.”

Pew’s Amanda Nickerson, mentioned in the story above, is calling for an immediate suspension of the Pacific bluefin fishery until significant steps are taken to reverse the decline.

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