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The science of sustainable seafood, explained

Record prices for tuna & crab are a good opportunity to talk about sustainability

The first tuna auction of the year at the Toyosu fish market in Tokyo is this Sunday, January 5th, so Pacific bluefin tuna are about to be the most expensive fish in the world. The year’s first auction is known for setting price records as buying the first, “best” bluefin of the year is an important status symbol and publicity stunt for sushi chefs in Japan. A prized bluefin from the Oma region off Northern Japan is big and has a high fat content—a high quality fish will fetch up to $200 per pound. However, the “best” tuna at the first auction of the year fetches an order of magnitude more.

Last year, the auction saw a 612-pound bluefin sell for a record 333.8 million Yen or roughly 3 million U.S. dollars, working out to just under $5,000 per pound. Last year’s auction was the first “new year” auction at Toyosu after moving the market from the famed Tsukiji market which probably pushed the price to record levels. It would be surprising if this year’s price tops $3 million dollars after last year’s buyer, Kiyoshi Kimura, owner of the Sushizanmai chain told reporters, “The tuna looks so tasty and very fresh, but I think I did too much. I expected it would be between 30 million and 50 million yen, or 60 million yen at the highest, but it ended up five times more.”

Buying the first, best for an exorbitant price is great for publicity—nearly every major news outlet covered the story from last year and printed quotes from Kimura, but the tradition is not limited to tuna. The first snow crab auction of the season on November 6th followed a similar pattern; a 2.7 pound snow crab sold for 5 million yen, or about $46,000 dollars (~$17,000 per pound), earning the buyer status and fame in Japan.

Media coverage of record prices

News stories about the record prices are a great opportunity to bring in fishery science. This story on snow crab, by Cory Stieg, reports on the record price while also bringing in snow crab science and management. Much of the coverage of tuna notes that Oma tuna are part of the Pacific bluefin (Thunnus orientalis) population that is significantly depleted, but there is an opportunity to bring in more information and educate the public: Pacific bluefin management is a classic fishery management story in real-time.

  • Pacific bluefin were severely overfished for decades by several countries along the Pacific Rim.
  • In 2015, countries that fish bluefin agreed to a scientifically-backed quota of fish. This was an important first step for management.
  • Since then, the population has risen from 2.6% to 3.3% of its original size, a small but meaningful improvement.
  • However, since the quota system was introduced, nearly every country in the agreement has fished beyond their quota, a classic management/enforcement
  • Overall, Pacific bluefin are on the mend, but various government actors could stall that progress. In the last management meeting, Japan proposed to raise quotas based on the improving population numbers but their proposal was rejected. Japan ended up purchasing 300 tons of quota from Taiwan so they will still end up fishing more than last year.
  • Climate change plays a complicating role in management as warming water is changing migration patterns and opening up recreational fishing opportunities for them in highly populated areas, g. Southern California.

The story of Pacific bluefin is a good representation of fishery management’s failures, challenges, and successes; it should be covered when reporting on next week’s tuna-buying publicity stunt.

Picture of Max Mossler

Max Mossler

Max is the managing editor at Sustainable Fisheries UW.

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