Every year, on the first Saturday of January, crowds gather at the Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo to watch the auction of the first Bluefin Tuna of the year. For the last three years, the legendary first tuna broke the record for most expensive fish ever purchased — $396,000 in 2011, $736,000 in 2012, and a staggering $1,800,000 in 2013. Often highlighted as a symbol of the extent people are willing to go to eat that last bluefin tuna, the annual sale of this fish sets the tone for tuna conservation. With the relocation of the Tsukiji fish market to Toyosu in 2014, next week’s auction promises to be the biggest one yet.
Southern Bluefin Tuna are critically endangered, yet political maneuvering has kept tuna fisheries open and several Pacific nations have been caught falsifying their catch reports. Even still, the massive sale of the first tuna of the year is not indicative of the real demand for Bluefin Tuna.
The first tuna auction of the year is a performance designed to drive up the demand for Bluefin Tuna and boost the reputation of the fish market and the purchaser. Historically it is considered an honor to purchase the first tuna of the year, with purchasers willing to pay a premium for that fish. More recently, some reporters have noted that the ground-breaking recent sales have been major publicity stunts, organized by the market and the winning purchasers, and one reporter suggests that the money may not actually change hands. It should also be noted that the last three record-breaking fish were all won by the same purchaser, who then goes on to receive a massive amount of free publicity.
By making Bluefin Tuna seem desirable through an artificially inflated value — a value that is then repeated around the world as the going-price of tuna — we not only increase consumer demand for those tuna but increase the pressure on fish stocks, as fishers willing to chase a million-dollar fish will be less deterred by regulation and more willing to accept the toothless penalties for violating quotas as simply the cost of doing business.
Here is my challenge to you, the dedicate journalist that wants to cover this annual event: Don’t just report the value of the first tuna of the year, let us know the value of every tuna sold next Saturday.