The first bluefin tuna of 2015 sold at auction Saturday at the famous Tokyo Metropolitan Central Wholesale Market (Tsukiji Market) for $37,500–a precipitous drop from 2013’s record-breaking $1.76 million and nearly half the price of last year’s fish. The buyer in all three cases was Kiyoshi Kimura, owner of the Japanese sushi restaurant chain Sushi Zanmai. The sale price will no doubt lead to a lot of Monday morning quarterbacking regarding the bluefin market, fishery and conservation status, but, in reality, the annual bluefin auction is little more than a footnote/side show (albeit a headline-grabbing one) in the overall story of a fish that some believe is at risk of being fished into extinction.
…or is it?
Japan is ground zero for the global bluefin tuna market, as it’s estimated the country consumes about 80% of the bluefin tuna landed worldwide. When Japan makes world news regarding bluefin, it’s worth taking note, as they drive markets. This year’s auction marks Kimura’s fourth consecutive year as the highest bidder at Tsukiji. The fall in price for this year’s fish (the lowest price since 2007) is linked, according to market watchers and local media, to both increased supply of tuna and decreased competition at the auction. Insofar as the latter is concerned, one of the other major players, the Hong Kong-based Taste of Japan Group that owns Itamae Sushi, did not bid on this year’s tuna, allowing Kimura to buy the fish for a bargain price. When it comes to the question of supply, however, the waters get a little murkier, especially since the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) lists all three species on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species and notes a decreasing population trend.
Can there really be an increased supply that is driving prices lower in the face of such dire warnings about the species’ conservation status?
Media Frenzy – What Does it Mean?
Each year when the first bluefin auction price is announced, there is a predictable, albeit short, media frenzy. While much of the ink dedicated to the bluefin auction is focused on the gee-whiz-that’s-a-lot-of-money-to-pay-for-a-fish story that helps to fill the 24-hour news cycle, there is also always a smattering of serious reporting each year from media outlets like The Atlantic, The Guardian and the New York Times that seeks to draw a connection between the well-publicized conservation status of the bluefin and the outrageous price paid at auction for a single fish.
“What does it mean?”
When the bluefin tuna sold for $1.76 million two years ago, some heralded it as an acknowledgement of the immense value of the animal based on its dwindling numbers (it’s been estimated that current populations are down 96% from levels before fishing began). Others saw it another way–as a sad statement about how the severe depletion of a species drives those with the means to pay top dollar for it. Dead. On a plate.
Regardless of how it is viewed, one thing seems certain: the price paid for the first bluefin at auction each year is largely divorced from market value. In other words, the winner of the auction expects to take a loss on the sale, because the flesh from that individual fish is really not the end game. In part, the auction is about ceremony and honor, but it is also about territory and asserting oneself in an incredibly valuable and competitive marketplace. At times, the auction has been about nationalism and nationalistic ideals. In simpler terms, it’s about bragging rights, which begs the question of why bidders this year did not not desire the bragging rights that come with a much higher dollar figure sale. Are there simply more fish in the marketplace, as Kimura told reporters after the purchase? Is the species less desirable because it is less scarce? Or is demand dropping for the fish that has been called “the Ferraris of the ocean” and “the king of the seas” in the face of international attention on the fishery’s sustainability?
Is the bluefin sushi craze over?
Regardless of the reason, if the lower price paid at auction for the first bluefin suggests a general devaluing of the species in the market place, then that could be good news for conservationists who argue current management is not working. Markets can, after all, drive species conservation based on economic incentive faster than most NGOs can affect management through rulemaking, international treaties and litigation. Kimura is reported to have said the bluefin tuna he bought this year was cheaper than he expected “thanks to a successful haul of tuna near Tsugaru Strait this year.” While it may be the case that more tuna were harvested this year in Tsugaru Strait, claiming that higher landings in-and-of-themselves show a rebounding population is as absurd as citing the frigid air expected this week in Maine as proof that global warming is a myth.
Further, the price of bluefin tuna, irrespective of the auction, is not plummeting in the countries where it is consumed most. While there may be somewhat of a dip in bluefin consumption in the United States because of increased consumer awareness, there is ample economic incentive for fishers to continue to hunt the species and push back against regulators looking to reduce quotas. In fact, the demand for bluefin may be on the rise as China and other countries continue to develop and develop ever larger appetites for expensive seafood and other luxury items. The result, in the absence of effective management, could mean the further decline of the species.
It could mean extinction–at least commercially.
Three Species–All at Risk of Extinction
Managing bluefin tuna is tough any way you slice it. The $37,500 bluefin was reportedly caught off Aomori, the northernmost prefecture on Japan’s main island. As such, it is a Pacific bluefin tuna (Thunnus orientalis), not an Atlantic bluefin tuna (Thunnus thynnus) or a southern bluefin tuna (Thunnus maccoyii). All three species are believed to be at risk of extinction owing largely to overfishing. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species currently lists the Pacific bluefin as “vulnerable,” the Atlantic bluefin as “endangered” and the southern bluefin as “critically” endangered.
While this particular fish was caught off the coast of Japan, the country’s demand for bluefin tuna draws on other bluefin stocks around the world. In Japan, there is frequently no distinction made at market between Pacific bluefin and Atlantic bluefin with both selling as either hon maguro or kuro maguro.
Because bluefin tuna (all three species) are highly migratory, management is especially challenging. What one country’s fisheries managers do in terms of management is not immune to the actions (or inaction) of fisheries managers in other countries. Atlantic bluefin tuna are divided into two stocks for management purposes, even though the two stocks intermingle. The western stock are those fish harvested off the coast of North America, and the eastern stock are those harvested off the coasts of Europe and Africa, as well as in the Mediterranean Sea. Unlike the Atlantic bluefin tuna, the Pacific bluefin tuna is managed as a single stock fished primarily in the North Pacific Ocean from East Asia to North America. The Pacific bluefin stock is managed by the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC) and the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission (IATTC).
Pacific Bluefin Tuna
While it’s difficult to separate out one species of bluefin because of global markets that don’t differentiate between species, it’s worth taking a look at the population from which the $37,500 fish was harvested. According to IUCN, the Pacific bluefin tuna population has declined between 19 and 33% over the past 22 years. The International Scientific Committee for Tuna and Tuna-like Species in the North Pacific Ocean concluded in their 2014 stock assessment that “overfishing is occurring and the stock is overfished.” By some estimates, bluefin tuna populations are about 4% of pre-fishing levels.Perhaps most alarming, the data suggest far too many juvenile Pacific bluefin tuna are being landed. ISC has advised that the landings of immature bluefin must be cut in half. If juvenile bluefin tuna don’t make it through to the spawning stock biomass, there is little hope for recovery as the dwindling number of mature fish leave the fishery. Nonetheless, fish as small as one kilogram are routinely landed.
2014 was a relatively good year for Pacific bluefin tuna conservation. Concrete catch limits were set in the western Pacific, and WCPFC agreed to dramatically cut back on the landings of juvenile fish. At the same time, IATTC endorsed regulations that are aimed to reduce commercial catch in the eastern Pacific by 40% this year. Fisheries managers in the U.S. have also taken on the recreational catch of Pacific bluefin and vowed to cut recreational harvest by perhaps as much as 30%.
Is it enough? Many say “no,” but that the moves made to better regulate the Pacific bluefin tuna fishery last year are a step in the right direction. The $37,500 paid for that Pacific bluefin? What can we say about that? It happened, and I think we learn a lot by acknowledging the fact that the sale price was “newsworthy” because of both how much it was and how little. In the final equation, possibly the best result of the annual auction at Tsukiji Market is that it means we are talking about bluefin tuna outside of fisheries meetings and academia, fish markets and sushi restaurants.