King of Bluefins: Worth the Cost?


Photo by David Nakamura

The bluefin tuna industry struck back Tuesday.

After a torrent of international criticism from conservationists for what some consider rampant over-harvesting, Tokyo's famed Tsukiji fish market announced that a 513-pound bluefin was sold at auction for $177,000 on the new year's first day of business. Wire services trumpeted news of the second-highest winning bid on record--which trails only the $220,000 paid for a 440-pound monster in 2001--complete with a picture of a shiny blue-black beast being hauled through the market in a wheelbarrow.

It was a rare auspicious day for Japan's fishing industry, which also took a beating when last year's documentary The Cove sought to expose the country's annual dolphin slaughter. In November, amid calls for a ban on bluefin harvesting, an intergovernmental commission moved to lower this year's catch limit for the eastern Atlantic and Mediterranean by 40 percent to 13,500 metric tons, though some conservationists complained the limit was still too high. Some sushi experts, including Food Channel contributor Trevor Corson, went so far as to push for a bluefin boycott.

Inside, hundreds of frozen tuna were lined up on the floor as retailers inspected small cuts in their tails.

The whopping price paid Tueday for the Tsukiji tuna, caught in the Pacific near Japan, surprised not only reporters and casual observers but also some of the market's hard-boiled veterans, who told me, when I visited the following day, that they thought the fish wasn't worth the yen.

Tsukiji is the world's busiest fish market. Each day, the 57-acre complex distributes 2,200 tons of fish, with 40,000 people buying and selling 450 different species. Not surprisingly, entire books have been written about this ecosystem, and these have brought out the tourists, who stream in before dawn to watch the tuna auction at 5:30 and enjoy some of the world's freshest sushi for breakfast.

The auction has become such a tourist trap, in fact, that last year Tsukiji managers closed the event to the public after one onlooker reportedly licked the head of a tuna. The event reopened a few weeks later but closed in mid-December for the peak season, lasting through most of this month. Thanks to a Japanese friend who knows a retired fisherman, a group of us was invited for a private viewing Wednesday morning.

Alas, membership has limited privileges. Though Hideki Nitta, 63, worked as a retailer at the market for 30 years, he could get us only so far--which meant we were stuck outside the auction warehouse, peering through open doors while trying to dodge dozens of supply carts whizzing by.

Inside, hundreds of frozen tuna were lined up on the floor as retailers inspected small cuts in their tails, judging them for color, fattiness, and oiliness. Auctioneers stood on small wooden stools reeling off prices and recording the winning bids. The activity was brisk and no-nonsense.

Outside the auction house, the commotion was greater: As we snapped photos, a security guard holding an English sign reading "This area is off-limits" shooed us away. Another fisherman lowered a gate to block our view. Just as we began to protest that we were respectful gaijin, we saw three other foreigners pose for a picture with the security guard, then grab his sign and refuse to give it back. We left the area and wandered among the market's 1,500 retail stalls.

Nitta guided us to a tuna retailer who was offering chunks of carved bluefin for up to $50 a kilogram. "No one pays that much," Nitta said. "They bargain it down, but when it reaches your plate, the price goes up by double." When I asked what he thought of the record-breaking bluefin, he scoffed: "Too expensive. Not worth it."

Later, when I asked the opinion of a chef at one of the 10 sushi restaurants lined up near Tsukiji's entrance, he too mocked the record price. Shaking his head, he posited that the winning restaurants might charge up to $80 for a single piece of sushi, even though the Japanese have reportedly shied away from the costliest bluefin amid a prolonged recession.

So who bought this prized chicken of the sea? News reports said it was a pair of restaurant owners from Tokyo and Hong Kong, who also apparently teamed up for the highest bid last year--$105,000 for a 282-pounder. One of the restaurants, Kyubey, is considered among the top two Tokyo sushi houses, but the other, Itamae, is a more casual but fast-growing Hong Kong chain apparently eager to impress.

Despite the warnings of the Tsukiji sushi chef, Kyubey sold slices of last year's champion for a relatively affordable $22 apiece, according to the Wall Street Journal. And the paper quoted Itamae's owner last year saying the bluefin wasn't the best he had seen--but that he was enjoying the attention that came with the winning bid. This year, he pledged to go for a record again.

Turns out Tuesday's monster of the deep might be something of a costly publicity stunt for an industry in dire need of good news.