Record-setting $736,000 paid for bluefin tuna poor indicator of scarcity

Its price has little to do with the market for or plight of the threatened fish

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Kiyoshi Kimura, president of Kiyomura Co., left, cuts a bluefin tuna in front of his Sushi Zanmai restaurant near Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo Thursday, Jan. 5, 2012. The bluefin tuna caught off northeastern Japan fetched a record 56.49 million yen, or about $736,000, in the first auction of the year at the fish market. 

Shizuo Kambayashi/AP Photo

While the bluefin tuna is widely acknowledged to be a threatened fish, the price paid Thursday for one 593-pound catch is more a show of nationalism and marketing saavy than a sign of how endangered the tuna has become.

Bluefin tuna is a long-lived, highly migratory fish prized by sushi eaters for its red meaty flesh. The Eastern and Western Atlantic stocks of bluefin tuna have been so severely plundered that they were proposed for listing as an endangered species in 2009 – a designation strongly opposed by Japan, which consumes around 80 percent of the bluefin caught in the world. A recent investigation by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists found that the black market trade in the Eastern Atlantic stock included nearly one in three fish caught.

It would stand to figure that the price paid by Kiyoshi Kimura, a Japanese restaurateur, would have been far higher had these black market fish not been driving down the price. But his big bid has more to do with national pride and salesmanship than the economics of scarcity.

Every year, the first auction of a Japanese-caught Pacific bluefin tuna attracts the attention of the sushi-loving nation. And for the past four years, the winning bidder has been from Hong Kong – a significant blow to the national psyche. The Chinese company, the Taste of Japan, set a record last year when it paid nearly $396,000 for a 754-pound tuna at the first fish auction of 2011.

The Chinese news service Xinghua in March put the average price of bluefin tuna in Japan around $10,000 for a single fish. That's a lot, even for a fish that can weight more than 1,000 pounds. But Kimura paid 70 times than that more for his New Year's delicacy: $1,238-per-pound.

Kimura, who is the president of a company that runs the Sushi Zanmai restaurant chain, told AP he wanted to keep the fish in Japan, “rather than let it get taken overseas.” The Wall Street Journal reported that cuts of the record-breaking tuna will be sold at regular prices ranging from $1.75 for a piece of the “akami” red meat to $5.45 for a slab of “otoro,” or fatty tuna, draped over a nugget of pressed rice. If sold at cost, each piece could be sold for as much as $96.

“Japan has been through a lot the last year due to the disaster,” Kimura added, referring to the tsunami and subsequent nuclear disaster. “Japan needs to hang in there. So I tried hard myself and ended up buying the most expensive one.”

But the spectacle surrounding the first bluefin tuna auction of the season leaves a bad tase in conservationists' mouths. “We don't agree with the use of an overfished and endangered species as a promotional gimmick,” Allen To, a marine conservation officer at the World Wildlife Fund, told the South China Morning Post after last years' record-setting sale.