EACH January, we have celebrated the New Year with unlimited excess – not only the gluttonous, gammony kind, but the excess which heralds the year’s first auction of a gargantuan bluefin tuna at the Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo, Japan. Each time, one fish, whose flesh is prized as an expensive delicacy in sushi restaurants, becomes a symbol of the New Year in this way.
Last January’s tuna sold for a record-breaking 155.5 million yen, more than double the price it claimed in 2012, upholding a tradition that has seen that initial coveted bluefin growing increasingly expensive each year. On the Sunday of Jan 5, everyone braced themselves for yet another mind-bending price surge, yet, despite its larger size this time, the 230kg fish sold for the equivalent of only 5% of last year’s winning bid, fetching just 7.36 million yen (RM234,800) from restaurateur Kiyoshi Kimura. He is the same bidder who won the last two auctions as well.
This year’s fish carries the lowest price tag in five years. Some sources speculate this is because of greater availability at another fish market in Japan this year, or due perhaps to other bidders backing out, intimidated by Kimura’s formidable reputation at the auction.
Either way, as before, this particular price reflects nothing about the conservation status of Pacific bluefin tuna – a population that was found recently to have dropped to less than 4% of its unfished levels – because the auction is too separated from reality to ever function as a yardstick.
Last year, the auction came under critical fire for attaching the excessive price tag to the prize tuna, as conservation groups drew attention to the danger of heightening demand for a creature that is already being over-fished. But this latest number, so dramatically lowered, cannot be used to quell fears. The wildly fluctuating price demonstrates only that the auction is subjective and distorted, dictated almost entirely by the bidders’ wealth and whims. And even despite this dramatic dip in price, which inches the fish a little closer to its actual market value, conservationists say it cannot begin to reflect the priceless nature of the fish population overall.
So how are we to feel about someone slapping a strip of otoro – the bluefin tuna’s most prized belly meat – on a plate and serving it to a few thousand lucky sushi connoisseurs?
“We don’t talk about whether you should eat it or not, we talk about whether it’s over-fished or not,” says Sarah Shoffler, fishery biologist and coordinator for the US delegation to the International Scientific Committee for Tuna and Tuna-like Species in the North Pacific Ocean (ISC). This was the organisation that showed in January last year that Pacific bluefin tuna populations have dropped 96.4% from their unfished levels, with a striking 90% of the catch made up of younger, smaller specimens that might not yet have reproduced.
These findings focused the limelight on two international bodies that have the power to regulate the fishery of this species across the Pacific, one of which, called the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission, includes members like the United States, and Japan, the world’s largest consumer of Pacific bluefin tuna. Yet the two organisations’ 2013 policy response to the ISC’s ominous report was weak, says Amanda Nickson, director of Global Tuna Conservation at the Pew Charitable Trusts. “They both failed (last) year to decrease the catch from current levels,” she says.
The Pacific bluefin is a highly productive fish. “Spawning females can put out millions of eggs each year,” Shoffler says. Currently, scientists have no evidence that this so-called “recruitment” of new fish generations has reduced. However, there’s no doubt that the tuna can be classified as over-fished, based on its massive overall population dip. “It’s not just that they’re catching the small (younger) fish, it’s that they’re catching so many of them” – and have been doing this for so long – that is a cause for concern, Shoffler explains.
For stocks to improve, Nickson lists an oft-repeated string of solutions. “There should be a scientifically informed catch limit for this species, and there should be a minimum size limit,” she says, adding that next on the conservation wish list is the establishment of an initial 10-year recovery plan for Pacific bluefin. But with the fish auction becoming such a firm annual fixture, all that is hard to imagine.
“There is no doubt that the ongoing demand for bluefin tuna is a major challenge to managing the fishery,” Nickson says. The mechanics of the auctions themselves are also subject to speculation, some reporters saying that they are not open bids, but rather prearranged sales that function more as a form of publicity for the market and the associated restaurants.
And if the auctions are genuine, even this year’s price is a dramatically elevated version of economic reality. Andrew David Thaler, a deep-sea biologist who wrote about the tuna auction, calculates that the actual market value of this year’s fish would be closer to £5,000 (RM27,200).
The conservationist’s reality is that no scenario can work. Inflate the price of bluefin tuna several fold, and you risk spurring demand to a threatening extent. Let the cost dip and fluctuate dramatically, and you create the impression that the price of the fish is purely an artefact, disassociated from the true value of depleted wild stocks.
Yet year after year, driven by the value we randomly assign to handsome slabs of meat, the cogs are set in motion. In a way, this year’s lowered price tag serves as a test of ethical resolve. We’re supposed to grasp that everything about this auction scenario is unrepresentative, detached from the real world, and bizarre – so much so that no one should really be eating this fish.
It’s something that few like to hear – especially about the foods we deem so central to our cultural refinement. But no matter how low bidders slip, bluefin tuna can, for now, have no “fair price” attached to its head. – Guardian News & Media