Each January, the first bluefin tuna auction at Toyko's Tsukiji fish market commands some of the highest prices of the year.
This year's auction got off to an especially extravagant start when a sushi chain owner paid 56.49 million yen, or about $736,000, for one 593-pound bluefin tuna yesterday, according to wire service reports.
But environmentalists who closely monitor the dwindling bluefin tuna stocks say this sends exactly the wrong signal to fishermen, especially those who are tempted to break international law to go after bluefin.
"We have a pretty significant overfishing problem with bluefin tuna," Lee Crockett, who directs the Pew Environment Group's bluefin tuna work, tells The Salt. "When you sell fish for this amount of money, that exacerbates those problems. You can bet fishermen all over the world are going to say, 'Boy, I'd like to sell fish for that amount of money.'"
Kiyoshi Kimura, this year's big spender and president of Kiyomura Co., paid almost double what was paid last year at the first auction of 2011.
But his decision to pay so much may have been more of a publicity stunt than a true reflection of the market for bluefin. When asked why he willingly paid three-quarters of a million dollars for one fish, Kimura said he "wanted to give the country a boost," according to the AP. Japan is still reeling from the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami that tore along its northern coast, leaving death and destruction in their wake. The fishing industry was not spared in the damage.
Instead of selling the prized fish for top dollar, Kimura decided to divide it into 10,000 pieces and sell it at ordinary prices, The Daily Telegraph reported.
Overpriced tuna is nothing new in Japan. Bluefin is treasured for its high fat content, and slivers of the fattiest part, the belly — a cut called toro — can go for $24 at Tokyo sushi bars.
But Japan and other countries' growing taste for fatty tuna has the Pew Environment Group and many other conservation groups concerned. One estimate has bluefin stocks at just 20 percent of what they once were. And many fishermen don't obey the international quotas that are supposed to protect the fish so that populations can rebound.
A recent analysis by Pew found that the quantity of eastern Atlantic bluefin tuna traded on the global market in 2010 exceeded the official quota by 141 percent. "High prices cause fishermen to find ways around the quotas," says Crockett.
His group is calling for an electronic tracking system that would make it easier for regulators to keep tabs on how much fish each fisherman catches.