National Geographic
Menu

Insanity Caused By Eating Bluefin Tuna

Recently, the owner of several sushi restaurants in Japan paid nearly $1.8 million U.S. dollars for a single bluefin tuna.  Last year this same individual paid what was then a record price—about $ 740,000.

Photo: Bluefin tuna being reeled in
Photo by Carl Safina

With this year’s fish the man outdid—not to say outbid—himself. But presumably other bidders were pushing the price into orbit before the auctioneer pronounced, “Sold!”

Why would anyone pay that much for one fish, wholesale?

Well, first of all, I have no idea if he can retail it at a profit. If he can, the problem is bigger than the fish.

There is some of the old supply and demand at work. This year’s fish weighed about 500 pounds; not particularly large for this species, which can reach three times that size. Or could. If they survived that long.

Photo: Bluefin tuna swimming
Bluefin faster than shredded water; photo by Carl Safina

Bluefin tuna are everywhere depleted by overfishing, down to single-digit percentages of former abundance in most places where they still swim. Bluefins criss-cross the North Pacific on great migrations, transiting from Japan to Mexico. A nearly identical form swims the North Atlantic, where schools from distinct breeding populations in the Gulf of Mexico and Mediterranean merge in migrations on the open ocean, ranging to Canada and Great Britain before going back to their origins to breed. And a southern bluefin plies the waters around Australia, New Zealand and the Indian Ocean. They were formerly very abundant in the North Sea where they were caught commercially. That’s gone. And they were also caught in large numbers in the tropical Atlantic between Africa and Brazil, but overfishing in the 1960s seems to have wiped them off that part of the map.

Photo: head of dead bluefin tuna
Photo by Carl Safina

A new report shows that the Pacific population from which the latest most-paid-for fish was killed is down to about 4 percent of its former abundance.  It costs a lot more now, to catch one. Most of them are caught small and young. That’s one reason big ones are so expensive. But that doesn’t explain why people are willing to pay so much. After all, no one needs million-dollar fish for food. (Though a lot of people need food, and many of them can’t afford three meals a day. Some can’t afford any meals.) So the reasons are psychological.

The man says—as he did last year—that he paid so much, “to give Japan a boost.”

What duh? No; the man seems to badly need attention. So I’m not mentioning him by name here. My feeling is, he doesn’t need more advertising from me; he needs counseling.

In a world of such need, wouldn’t it have been a nice “boost” of a gesture for him, on behalf of his lavish, obscenely priced restaurants, to give the $1.8 million to hungry people? Or even to give away $1.8 million—or, hey, even just a million—in free sushi in poor neighborhoods? Or even give a mere half million to a conservation organization or two or three that is actually working to ensure that the world’s bluefin tuna populations can be pulled out of their global tailspin so that sloppily rich people can continue slurping slivers of their muscle for years to come? (I know, I know; that was just kind of a silly suggestion.)

The bluefin tuna, a priceless piece of evolution at its ocean-going peak, is now simply worth too much dead to be allowed to live, anywhere. An infinitesimally small fraction of the human population who can throw money around like that, but enough to be disastrous to the world’s big wildlife.

Photo: Bluefin tuna headed for Japan
Headed for Japan; photo by Carl Safina

Bluefin tuna, the species, are no longer the abundant wonders they once were. Catching them is no longer simply a fishery. It’s an insanity, an obscenity, a sick and sad obsession. An illness.

And you know as well as I that will prices like this on its head, it will continue to be mercilessly pursued to the very end, if the market will bear the unbearable. And that if any fishing boat captain knew that he had just raised to the surface the very last bluefin tuna on Earth, his thought would be: “I’m about to get rich.”

Comments

  1. Danni
    Australia
    September 21, 2013, 7:48 pm

    I have to remind everyone this is not just japan. Its countries like Australia (who have most of the allowable catch under the committee for conservation of SBT), and America (who take no part in conservation effforts) who are reaping the rewards aswell as tuna exports provide great industry income. Though undeniably far below that of the 50s and 60s when tuna were beautifully abundant and a very successful predator. For tuna to persist the world need to coordinate effective management practice into real action. Without countires like mexico and america on board conservation efforts any population growth fostered will likely be absorbed by such greedy, unthoughful markets.
    And the consumers need to make thoughtful choices.. try to buy organic when you can (promote the most sustainable way of food production that we know of so far), eat less meet, eat less tuna!! And dont forget the past, we’ve drove many species to extinction.
    Are we so stupid we cant learn from our mistakes, accept the truth and hold ourselves at least a little responsible? Its not just japan who are killers… we are all animals…most of us eat meet. If you buy it your condoning the methods it was produced with and the associated tradeoffs (environmental and social : ie sweat shop clothes) because you are sending market signals to harvesters who will continue catching fish because it is profitable.

  2. Walter Via
    Virginia
    January 30, 2013, 3:50 pm

    Carl your assessment is correct, great article.

    I did my capstone project to graduate with a degree in Conservation Biology on bluefin tuna called: Atlantic bluefin tuna: How Humankind is eating the species off the planet.

    I should have titled it “How japan is eating the species off the planet” because they consume about 80% of the bluefin in the world. Link to .pdf: http://bis.gmu.edu/undergraduate/student-awards-2010-2011

  3. Dave
    California
    January 29, 2013, 9:57 pm

    As the Drug Cartel is to Americans.. The Americans are the Blue Fin Cartel to Japan’s Blue Fin Drug.. And America is willing to send them all the Tuna they want! Of course they will pay top $$ for it right? Just like the Cartel sells its drugs to America.. Dont point fingers.. Just saying Boys..

  4. Aharon Solomons
    Israel
    January 22, 2013, 6:07 am

    Maggie
    Your post appears to be a masterpiece of confusion . I do not believe that anyone suggested the fish in question was to be stuffed and put on a wall.
    Your suggestion that this obscene price was a “publicity stunt”. To promote what exactly ? Makrame ?
    It appears to me that someone interested in the continuity
    of tradition would be the first to suggest a temporary moratorium to preserve the tradition .
    No matter how this is dressed up this is pure greed, and yes an obscenity . I care less for tip toeing around Japanese sense abilities and more for the health of our Oceans and these magnificent creatures.
    The continuing slaughter of whales and dolphins , whaling hypocritically described as research does nothing to endear me to Japan’s noble Traditions. I thoroughly aggree with Carl

  5. Natalie Mannering
    US
    January 21, 2013, 3:40 pm

    I was surprised to find this article was not about how mercury in tuna, which is at very dangerous levels now (there is no “safe” level of mercury) can cause brain damage and thus, a kind of insanity. Overfishing our oceans is certainly one sign of our collective insanity, but the pollution of our oceans is certainly not something which we can safely ignore either.

    Author Replies: To see writing from me on mercury in seafood, do a search for: mercury “carl safina”
    thanks,
    – Carl S

  6. Arnold Parsons
    MA
    January 21, 2013, 11:15 am

    Wow is right, Carl. The process of bidding extraordinary amounts of money on the first fish of the season is a longstanding Japanese ritual. The price paid has nothing to do how the bidder values the fish and everything to do with pride and tradition. This is not new news. Yes, the tuna fishery is seriously depleted worldwide but don’t equate the first Japanese tuna auction of the year with anything to do with the fishery or economics. If you do you are wrong.

    • Carl Safina
      January 21, 2013, 1:16 pm

      The price paid, by definition, has everything to do with how the bidder values the fish. We agree that, “Yes, the tuna fishery is seriously depleted worldwide.” And that has everything to do with how we all devalue the fish. Paying $1.8 M for one fish devalues the fish. In a way it devalues all of us. It’s a desecration.

  7. Meg
    Canada
    January 21, 2013, 10:59 am

    Did you really travel to PEI to take that picture of the first tuna in the article, I was just wondering because every price talked about is in US dollars.
    Great article, it is sad what the world is coming too

  8. Triple S
    Virginia
    January 17, 2013, 1:16 pm

    My son had the right thought. And just how much of that $1.7 million did the fishermen get? It is unfortunate that U.S. fishermen are regulated to death and then you have foreign idiots who could care less about sustainability. What’s sad in this situation, Japan is much more dependent on sustaining the fisheries than many other countries. I’d love nothing better than to land a huge bluefin. However, I would release it. In the mountains, fishing is a way of life. Something you learn to do as soon as you can hold a rod. We have wonderful wild trout, smallmouth bass and everyone gets majorly excited when it warms enough to fish for them. Something that is very popular here is catch and release. We do sometimes keep just enough for a meal, but no more. I understand the problems with releasing saltwater fish, but a huge bluefin? As for giving Japan a boost, yeah. Right. Idiot. I love your article and personally believe you hit the mark. Thanks.

  9. Steve
    United States
    January 14, 2013, 12:36 am

    Mankind- the enemy to everything.

  10. Joe Sashime
    January 13, 2013, 4:58 pm

    Once did a test back in 1988 with the crew of a Japanese long line that fished for Southern Blue fin tuna

    Placing
    Albacore
    Yellow fin
    Big eye
    Southern Bluefin

    on a table, blind folding the crew as they were asked to do a taste test and pick the SBT.

    Result (19 crew)
    2 chose albacore
    6 chose Yellowfin
    4 chose Big eye
    7 chose SBT

    So 12 out of 19 of the crew did not get it correct.
    This by no means is indicative of the whole nation but it did point out in a small way that taste and texture was difficult to identify if some one was blindfolded and couldn’t see the colour and be told what they were eating.before hand.

    Joe

  11. Gary Soucie
    Williamstown MA
    January 13, 2013, 12:24 pm

    Right on, Carl!

    And who is this David Schalit who so badly misread some of your points? He apparently cannot tell the diference between a fish’s age and a population’s existence.

  12. Maggie
    Wisconsin
    January 13, 2013, 10:47 am

    I am grateful for David Schalit’s post which caused me to take a step back and look at other news sources about this incident. As I suspected, it turns out you’ve really missed the boat on what happened here.

    First of all, this fish (an ‘Omi’ blue fin tuna, thought of by the people Japan as the ‘best’) is not going to be mounted on the wall. It was purchased by the owner of a chain which is offering it on the menu at normal prices, ~$1.50 per piece. This was billed as a gesture of encouragement (the significance of which might be lost on someone with no familiarity with the culture).

    Furthermore, it is a repeated tradition in the Tsukiji market when taking to auction the first bluefin tuna of the year for buyers to push the price upward to attract media attention. The price paid for the first tuna has nothing to do with the prices paid for other tuna afterwards, nor does it set any reference price for the market. Therefore, the price paid has nothing to do with the tuna itself.

    Yes, the oceans are in deep trouble. I’ve been avoiding seafood for a long time because of it. But hysterical articles like these, that seize upon an event and use it to stir up anger towards a particular group of people (be they “the rich”, or “the japanese”) not only do nothing to solve the problem but actually make the situation worse by stirring up anger and spreading wrong impressions of what’s really going on. Your snarky reply to David regarding the price of a scallop reveals that the motive certainly isn’t to have a productive conversation.

    • Carl Safina
      January 13, 2013, 8:39 pm

      What you call, “a gesture of encouragement (the significance of which might be lost on someone with no familiarity with the culture),” is what we in this culture call a publicity stunt. Japan is a heavily Westernized place. Jazz, baseball, etc. So, please. There’s plenty I don’t like about U.S. culture, and the part of Japan’s “culture” that suddenly, and unprecedentedly, decides that paying close to $2 million dollars for one fish is not a tradition, this is an illness, a self-absorbed piece of Wester capitalist culture. It’s not a “tradition.”

      You say, “Therefore, the price paid has nothing to do with the tuna itself.” Exactly my point. It’s disconnected from reality and out of touch with what it’s dealing in, or its own social context, because 1) this is a deeply depleted fish, and 2) there are also hungry and needy people in Japan.

      You say, “spreading wrong impressions of what’s really going on.” I disagree. It’s an opinion piece, and my opinion is: paying $1.8 million for one fish is simply obscene. I think that is exactly what is really going on. Calling it “culture” is a fig leaf; it’s still obscene.

  13. Maggie
    Wisconsin
    January 13, 2013, 10:42 am

    I am grateful for David Schalit’s post which caused me to take a step back and look at other news sources about this incident. As I thought might be the case, it turns out you’ve really missed the boat on what happened here.

    First of all, this fish (an ‘Omi’ blue fin tuna, thought of by the people Japan as the ‘best’) is not going to be mounted on the wall. It was purchased by the owner of a chain which is offering it on the menu at normal prices, ~$1.50 per piece. This was billed as a gesture of encouragement (the significance of which might be lost on someone with no familiarity with the culture).

    Furthermore, it is a repeated tradition in the Tsukiji market when taking to auction the first bluefin tuna of the year for buyers to push the price upward to attract media attention. The price paid for the first tuna has nothing to do with the prices paid for other tuna afterwards, nor does it set any reference price for the market. Therefore, the price paid has nothing to do with the tuna itself.

    Yes, the oceans are in deep trouble. I’ve been avoiding seafood for a long time because of it. But hysterical articles like these, that seize upon an event and use it to stir up anger towards a particular group of people (be they “the rich”, or “the japanese”) not only do nothing to solve the problem but actually make the situation worse by stirring up anger and spreading wrong impressions of what’s really going on.

  14. Master
    USA
    January 13, 2013, 2:24 am

    We need a create a farm for blue-fin tuna, it will be a lucrative business.

  15. Wow
    January 12, 2013, 12:52 pm

    Seriously lackluster “reporting” here. It has nothing to do with rarity or price. It was the first tuna of the season. He was bidding against a gentleman from China. Its pride.

    • Carl Safina
      January 13, 2013, 8:42 pm

      Paying $1.8 Million for one fish “has nothing to do with price?” Wow indeed.

  16. Kay
    January 11, 2013, 1:02 pm

    I’m doing a project on the bluefin tuna, for biology, and finding all of these stories is pretty sad. I, personally, do not like the taste of fish, but my friends and family love it. Especially bluefin tuna. After telling them that they won’t have it for much longer, they were upset and began to blame me for making up 1000+ websites to stop them from eating fish. This country has some pretty stupid people living in it.

  17. Kimi Wei
    Paterson, NJ
    January 11, 2013, 12:18 pm

    Thanks for the report. Sad news indeed. These people need to play Jaimie Cloud’s Fish Game.

  18. David Schalit
    New York
    January 11, 2013, 12:13 pm

    Carl –
    – …Your comment: “If they survived that long”. I refer you to the “Status Review Report of Atlantic Bluefin Tuna, NMFS, May 2011 which states that Atlantic bluefin is not threatened with endangerment or endangered throughout its range.
    “..also caught in large numbers in the tropical Atlantic between Africa and Brazil, but overfishing seems to have wiped them off that part of the map.” You are referring to the “Brazilian Incident” which has, until 2005, been used as an exemplar of how it is possible to “fish out” an assemblage of bluefin but subsequently summarily dismissed as pure fiction. Read: Fromentin and Powers (2005).
    …Your final statement, “..with prices like this on its head”, suggests that the price paid in Tokyo for this singular fish is indicative of normal, year round pricing. Therefore, I refer you to 2012 SAFE Report (NOAA) in which you will find that the average price paid US fishermen in 2011 was $10.22/lb, which is less than that which is paid to scallop fishermen for their catch.

    AUTHOR REPLIES

    I did not use the word endangered. The agency that manages the fishery says they are not endangered. But the independent authority the World Conservation Union does indeed list Atlantic bluefin as endangered http://www.iucnredlist.org/details/21860/0

    Fromentin and Powers in fact state: “Atlantic bluefin tuna has been undergoing heavy overfishing for a decade. We conclude that the current exploitation of bluefin tuna has many biological and economic traits that have led several fish stocks to extreme depletion in the past.” http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1467-2979.2005.00197.x/abstract

    I’ll concede your last point when a scallop sells for $1.8 million.

    – Carl Safina

  19. A
    January 10, 2013, 10:48 pm

    I’m surprised Japan is so completely impervious to logic when it comes to fishery conservation. Their capacity to make rational collective decisions hasn’t been deliberately neutered by private interests to quite the same extent that ours has. You’d think there could be a pragmatic policy solution here.

    This strange compulsion they have to kill everything in the ocean just means they’re going to be that much more bummed out when there’s nothing tasty left to kill.

  20. Lexi
    United States
    January 10, 2013, 6:29 pm

    Thanks, Carl. I really appreciate your point of view of this!