In the late 1960s, a Japan Airlines cargo executive named Akira Okazaki needed a practical solution to Japan’s trade imbalance with the United States. Planes bearing cameras and electronics to New York were returning empty. Searching for something suitably expensive, Okazaki settled on bluefin tuna, which was fast becoming a delicacy at the time. Today, the extinction of that fish is a very real possibility. Bluefin appeared doomed until an earthquake and tsunami intervened—and will still be doomed unless we can learn to successfully farm the wildest fish of all.
Intially, Okazaki's success seemed modest enough. On August 14, 1972—the "Day of the Flying Fish"—the first tuna airlifted from Nova Scotia were sold at Tokyo’s Tsukiji fish market for a respectable (and profitable) $4 per pound at auction. But the price would rise 10,000 percent over the next 20 years as the promise of a worldwide supply of fatty toro raised sushi from Japanese street food to a global phenomenon. Today, 30 million Americans regularly eat sushi (to be joined momentarily by as many as 50 million middle-class Chinese), and it’s no coincidence that bluefin are headed toward commercial extinction.
Bluefin, the pinnacle of the tuna world, remains a particularly Japanese obsession, however. The Asian nation still imports 80 percent of the world’s catch. Last March, at a meeting of Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), Japan orchestrated the veto of a measure to give bluefin stronger protections in order to protect its habit. Japanese officials did say they would abide by lower quotes set by International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT), which in 2007 ignored the recommendations of its own scientists to set the limit at 15,000 metric tons, recommending 29,500 tons instead. The actual catch that year, and each year since, was 61,000 tons—half of that illegal—leading ICAAT to be branded the "International Conspiracy to Catch All Tunas."
In 2006, an independent fisheries consultant named Roberto Mielgo alleged to the producers of the documentary The End of the Line that Mitsubishi—the conglomerate which handles nearly half of all bluefin tuna imports—had stepped up its purchases in a Goldfinger-like attempt to corner the market. His evidence was purely mathematical: Mitsubishi was purchasing thousands of tons in excess of market demand, then freezing them at -60˚C (at which point cellular degradation all but stops). "I saw no other explanation to that particular fact that this Fort Knox of frozen bluefin served two purposes," he said last week from Malta, where he is currently taking inventory of bluefin stocks. "One: cartel-ize the market. And two: if the bluefin were to go extinct and you were sitting on that mountain of frozen gold, you name the price."
Mielgo's conjecture may sound like a conspiracy theory. But Mitsubishi does, in fact, keep a supply of deep frozen tuna. The company has said publicly that it only keeps this supply to even out bumps in supply. But could one of those bumps be a full-on extinction? A representative did not respond to a request for comment for this column.
Either way, much has changed since 2006, Mielgo says. Official quotas have fallen while enforcement of poaching in the Mediterranean has been stepped up, and no trawler has been able to fish in Libyan territorial waters since NATO warships dropped anchor in March to commence airstrikes. And then the tsunami happened.
In addition to the destruction along the Japanese coastline and the meltdown at Fukushima, Mitsubishi’s bluefin stockpile suffered losses due to the destruction of facilities in Sendai and electrical shortages which compromised various freezers, forcing the thawing and sale of high-end tuna to a nation in mourning wasn’t in the mood to eat.
"Nobody really knows what the effect of the three disasters have had on the frozen stock," Mielgo says. "Some people people are talking about a loss of anywhere between 20 percent to 80 percent." The remainder has fallen as the Japanese cut back on consumption in face of tragedy and national soul searching. "Things have changed."
The final blow to any plans to corner the bluefin market may have been delivered with the news last week that San Diego-based Umami Sustainable Seafood became the first to successfully spawn tuna from eggs at its facility in Croatia. While it remains to be seen whether farmed tuna could be economically fattened and raised to adulthood without compromising the taste and texture of wild bluefin, it does offer some hope that bluefin tuna aren’t doomed to extinction—and that the real profit is waiting to be made in saving, not freezing them.
Read more of The Butterfly Effect.
[Image: Flickr user kawanet]