Bluefin Tuna and the Tsukiji Fish Auction: caution in drawing conclusions from record breaking prices

Andrew ThumbToday marks the first Tsukiji fish market tuna auction of 2013, and, as in the previous two years, the first fish sold broke all previous records. In 2011, the record breaking tuna sold for $396,000. Last year, we tipped the scales at $736,000. Early this morning, the record breaking bluefin tuna blew the previous records out of the water, fetching a whopping $1,800,000 at the auction block, making this 488-lb tuna the most expensive fish ever purchased.

Over the next few weeks, I’m certain that we’ll see this number presented as an argument against bluefin tuna fishing, as an example of an industry out-of-control, and as a symbol of how ruthlessly we’ll hunt the last few members of a species to put on our dinner plates. These issues are reflected in the tuna market, but I want to urge caution in drawing too many conclusions from this record breaking number.

There are several issues in play at the first tuna auction of the year, and only some of them relate to the tuna fishery. Among the patrons of the Tsukiji fish auction, it is considered an honor to buy the first bluefin of the new years, and bidding wars reflect this fight for status. The massive international headlines that follow the purchase of such a fish is free advertising for the winner. As many auction-goers know, landing a high, early win is a way of marking your territory and letting your competitors know that you have the bankroll to push them out of a bidding war.

If $1.8 million is actually what this fish is worth to the consumer, it would sell for a hefty $345 at the dinner table, minimum. The owner, Kiyoshi Kimura, reports that the tuna will be sold at a huge loss–about $4.60 per serving.

All three species of bluefin tuna are currently overfished, and over the last few year attempts to protect bluefin tuna have been thwarted by fishing interests in Japan, New Zealand, the United States, and Mediterranean countries, among others. While this record breaking sale should serve a clarion call for increased scrutiny of the global tuna trade, it does not accurately reflect the market value of the fish.

Update: According to the Pew Environmental Group:

Scientists are expected to come out with a new stock assessment for Pacific bluefin on Monday, January 7. According to our sources, the new results are alarming and indicate further decline of the species.


Update 2: from the Twitterverse:


One comment

  1. Kevin Sullivan · January 5, 2013

    It is always good to question the meaning of events and how they relate to our causes. However, this article completely misses the point… Regardless of how much this one single fish sold for and whether the guy who bought it will lose money on this one fish, the fact that the overall price of bluefin tuna continues to increase means the exploitation of the species will as well. The more money to be made from a resource the more it will be pursued. The scientific data on bluefin tuna could not be more clear…all three sub-species’ populations are in dangerous decline, and will go extinct without moratoriums on their harvest.

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