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Who Will Eat the Last Bluefin?

jake tilson

Bluefin are having a bad year. It started in January on a rough winter sea on Japan’s Tsugaru Strait, where the Sea of Japan touches the Pacific. Small fish are drawn to these fertile waters, which in turn feed huge tuna, making them rich and fatty.

A small boat expertly lands one particular bluefin using live bait and a single-hook hand-line technique called ippon zuri. This huge tuna dragged out of the cold waters weighed 511 pounds. And because it was taken ashore at the port in Omamachi, the bluefin will bear the coveted label of Oma Maguro.

This mixture of how, where and when this fish is caught dictates what happens next and illustrates why bluefin face extinction from chopsticks.

The majestic fish is freighted to the Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo. In the central auction shed next to the Sumida River, the first tuna auction of the new year begins surrounded by dozens of press photographers and film crews. Our Oma Maguro — alongside other tuna from Mexico and Indonesia — sits on a wooden pallet bearing a gold-rimmed label telling of its auspicious origins. Bluefin are known in Japan as black diamonds of the sea; even when dead, they’re extraordinarily beautiful. Under ceremonial banners, the bidding begins by a Daito Gyorui Co. house auctioneer. The Oma Maguro sells for 16.28 million Yen ($175,000) and becomes one of the most valuable fish ever sold.

The bluefin is bought by joint bidders, a Hong Kong sushi chain, and the Michelin-starred Kyubei restaurant near the auction hall. For Kyubei, the first Oma Maguro will be a New Year talisman bringing good luck. But the outrageous price isn’t passed on to customers; later they will eat the exquisitely marbled fatty underbelly called toro at the normal price. But this is more than a PR coup. It’s difficult for an onlooker to grasp the status of this fish and how it has become so entwined into Japanese culture. It is as if Buffalo Bill shot the first Thanksgiving turkey in Yellowstone Park on July 4 and then offered it up for sale. But tuna are wild, and, sadly, most Japanese consumers aren’t aware of the fate that awaits this fish. Many Japanese would rather give up breathing than not eat fish.

Bluefin Tuna sold for $175,000 at Tokyo fish market. By Jake Tilson.

Toro reaches cult status

I once assumed toro has been celebrated as a gourmet specialty since Edo times. Not true. It’s a relatively new addiction. As late as the 1950s, toro was called neko-matagi, so bad a cat would pass over it, and worthless. Only after better refrigeration techniques were developed and the country’s postwar diet shifted towards fattier foods did the Japanese find toro palatable.

When any species achieves culinary-icon status, it’s days seem to be numbered. To compound the problem, sushi – and tuna with it — became a global craze. Although Japan imports 80% of every bluefin caught, the rest of the world consumes what’s left. Industrial commercial fishing has decimated bluefin tuna stocks in the Atlantic, Mediterranean and the Pacific. Bluefin have declined to about 15 percent of historic levels and have been placed on the Red List of Threatened Species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, or IUCN.

In March, the fate of bluefin was sealed at the U.N.’s Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species in Doha, Qatar. CITES, as it’s known, can offer species some protection in the form of a trading ban. As the British writer Charles Clover reported: “It was an ambush.”  The proposed trading ban was defeated decisively and quickly. Nations that voted against the ban included not just Japan, but Canada, Indonesia, Tunisia, United Arab Emirates, Venezuela, Chile, Grenada, Korea, Senegal, Morocco and others. The Japanese arrogantly threw a bluefin tuna buffet the night before as part of their lobbying strategy.

The result of this defeat, which goes against all scientific advice, is that the fate of bluefin is thrown back to the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas whose sole role is to manage the bluefin fishery. However, the group is so weak-willed in the face of the fishing industry that’s it’s cynically referred to as the International Conspiracy to Catch All Tuna. (Perhaps CITES can likewise be referred to as the Convention on the Indiscriminate Trade in Endangered Seafood.)

In truth, though, most governments can be added to this body of weak-willed, ineffective and short-sighted organizations. As Sue Lieberman, director of international policy with the Pew Environment Group told the BBC, “The market for this fish is just too lucrative, and the pressure from fishing interests too great, for enough governments to support a truly sustainable future for the fish.”

Can consumers save the tuna?

So is there anything we can do? In February at Seaweb’s Seafood Summit in Paris, I interviewed the eminent marine biologist Daniel Pauly from Canada’s University of British Columbia. One of the benefits of talking to someone concerned with the overall biodiversity of our oceans is that he takes a long-term view on the subject. I asked him whether consumers could help change the fate of certain species by shopping for seafood with care. He said such an approach was sanctimonious, and  that consumer pressure alone, while useful, would not be enough.

To effect real change requires moving up the chain of command, to large-scale fish buyers and to governments and organizations, Pauly said. To create pressure effectively, people need to not consume bluefin but also to keep lobbying governments and join protest groups with the aim of securing a trading ban at the next CITES meeting in two or three years. I wonder if it will take the extinction of such a high-profile species like bluefin tuna before further action is taken to safeguard marine creatures.

Which species could come next? Eels without doubt — the catch is down by 98% and they are on the IUCN Red List– soon to be followed by several shark species. Up to 73 million sharks are caught annually, many just for their fins.

I wonder if we’ll learn from the bluefin’s potential extinction. Or whether I’ll be writing an article titled “Who Will Eat the Last Shark?” next.


Jake Tilson is a U.K.-based artist, writer and designer, and author of the award-wining cookbook “A Tale of 12 Kitchens. He is currently writing a book about fish. The Tate Gallery recently acquired a piece of his depicting images of eel restaurants in Japan and London.

Photos, from top: Author Jake Tilson. Credit: Jennifer Lee
A bluefin tuna for sale at the Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo.
Credit: Jake Tilson