A couple weeks ago, a moderate-sized (500 lb) bluefin tuna sold for an unimaginable price of nearly $1.8 million US dollars – a new record – at a Tokyo fish auction. The buyer is the owner of several sushi restaurants in Japan. He also set the old record for the highest paid price for bluefin tuna ($740,000) at last year’s auction. This time he paid almost triple that amount. Supposedly, the high prices paid at the annual New Year’s tuna auctions in Tokyo are a way to “celebrate” (more likely it is about publicity), and do not reflect actual market price. Nonetheless, the continued increasing price buyers are paying for bluefin tuna mirrors its increasing rarity.
Just three days after the Tokyo fish auction, scientists released the most recent population update for the Pacific bluefin tuna population, from which the record paid for fish came. The scientific data shows that the current population is just a measly 4% of its historical abundance level, thanks to decades of overfishing and poor management. And to make matters worse, fishermen are mostly catching young bluefin tuna that have not yet had the chance to reproduce. In other oceans, fisheries have similarly depleted bluefin tuna populations to very low abundance levels.
Conservationists have called for fishermen around the globe to stop catching bluefin tuna –a majestic, one-of-a-kind fish, capable of growing to the size of a small car. And as a top predator they play an important role in our ocean ecosystems. But given the ridiculously high prices that bluefin tuna can fetch, it seems unlikely that fishermen are going to stop catching them. In Carl Safina’s latest blog, he says, “Catching bluefin tuna is no longer simply a fishery. It’s an insanity, an obscenity, a sick and sad obsession.” And unless the insanity stops, it seems inevitable that we will fish bluefin tuna until they are all gone.
Elizabeth Brown is a research scientist at Blue Ocean Institute.