Price of Pacific Bluefin Tuna Plummets, but Iconic Fish Still in Trouble

Peril lurks in every corner of the deep blue seas for these massive, prized animals.

Pacific bluefin tuna. (Photo: Richard Herrman/Getty Images)

Jan 6, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Clare Leschin-Hoar's stories on seafood and food politics have appeared in Scientific American, Eating Well and elsewhere.

At first it may seem like good news: The first Pacific bluefin tuna auctioned at Japan’s renowned Tsukiji market over the weekend sold for a fraction of last year’s record-setting price. The 507-pound swimmer went for a modest $70,000 to restaurateur Kiyoshi Kimura, who forked over $1.76 million for a 489-pound Pacific bluefin tuna just last year.

That tuna—at a jaw-dropping $3,603 per pound, or roughly $178 per piece of sushi—stands as the most expensive fish ever sold.

Environmentalists warn, however, that whether there's an inflated price or a steep discount, the annual auction of Pacific bluefins is a no-win for the precious fish. A high price sends the message to eaters that it’s a prized delicacy—one that may well disappear in their lifetime. A deflated price falsely conveys to some that the stocks are on the mend and the fish is once again plentiful. Activists worry both scenarios will increase demand on an already depleted fishery.

Of the three species of bluefin tuna—Pacific, Atlantic, and Southern—the Pacific bluefin is in the most precarious state. The International Scientific Committee for Tuna and Tuna-Like Species in the North Pacific Ocean released the first stock assessment of Pacific bluefin last year. The numbers were dire—dropping 96.4 percent from the species' unfished levels. An update of the report is expected in mid-February.

While the auction is increasingly seen as a publicity stunt, the tradition causes hand-wringing among environmentalists and marine experts concerned about the message being sent to sushi lovers.

While the Atlantic bluefin tuna has garnered much attention over the years, the same hasn’t been true of the Pacific bluefin. In San Diego, sports fishermen boast of casting their lines near controversial bluefin ranching pens (where juveniles are fattened for market), scooping up wild bluefin that congregate nearby.

“There’s been little to no public attention given to the plight of Pacific bluefin,” says Amanda Nickson, director of global tuna conservation for The Pew Charitable Trusts. Unlike the Atlantic bluefin, which is managed by the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tuna, which has set catch quotas, the Pacific bluefin is distinctly less well managed.

In July, the agency responsible for Pacific bluefin in the eastern Pacific Ocean ignored scientific advice and kept 2014 catch limits at current levels. In September, a committee responsible for managing bluefin in the western Pacific also maintained levels at status quo, exasperating environmentalists.

“This species migrates across the entire Pacific and in the western and central Pacific where there are no catch limits. The population has been decimated, and extraordinarily high levels [90 percent of the catch] are juveniles that are being caught before they can reproduce,” Nickson said.

In anticipation of Saturday’s auction, science writer Andrew David Thaler went so far as to ask journalists not to report only on the value of the first sale, saying the inflated price of the single tuna sends the message to fishermen that violating quotas is worth the cost.

Just why the auction price was 95 percent less than last year’s at a time when the fish is increasingly depleted isn’t clear. Some reports speculate that it’s because more bluefin tuna have been harvested in Oma, a northern Japanese city known for its tuna catch.

Japan consumes 70 percent of the world’s Pacific bluefin catch, and companies, including Mitsubishi Corporation (that’s right, the automobile maker), are known for stockpiling frozen bluefin carcasses. This kind of robust appetite prompts many to say it’s only a matter of time before we eat the last one.

“Catching bluefin tuna is no longer simply a fishery. It’s an insanity, an obscenity, a sick and sad obsession,” warns ocean scientist Carl Safina, who founded the Blue Ocean Institute.