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To celebrate World Tuna Day, eat anything else

Japan exceeds catch quota as 'sustainable' sushi bar in US holds the bluefin

Tokyo's Tsukiji fish market.

NEW YORK -- While those of us on dry land celebrate the first World Tuna Day on Tuesday, a storm is brewing in the seas ahead.

High demand for tuna -- responsible for what a Pew Charitable Trusts study estimates to be at least a $42.2 billion global industry with a nearly 5 million metric ton haul in 2014 -- has significantly depleted the stocks of nine out of 23 tuna species. For the highly coveted Pacific bluefin, whose dwindling population is thought to have been depleted by an alarming 97% of unfished levels, this could spell their extinction.

Endangered delicacy

"In almost any other setting where a population was this low, there would be a level of international outcry over continued fishing," said Amanda Nickson, Pew's director of global tuna conservation, on the plight of Pacific bluefin. Still, "we've been told very clearly that there is no willingness to accept stricter or lower catch limits to allow the population to recover," Nickson lamented.

Not long before World Tuna Day, established by the United Nations last year as May 2, Japan exceeded its self-imposed quota for juvenile Pacific bluefin for the first time by surpassing the 4,007-ton limit with a total catch of 4,008 tons. Much ends up on dinner plates at renowned sushi eateries, and restaurateurs have been known to dish out headline-grabbing sums at Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo for Pacific bluefin.

Pew has called for a two-year moratorium on fishing of Pacific bluefin so that stocks can replenish themselves. Putting a hold on the juvenile catch would help buy the population time to rebound to a target of 20% of unfished levels, Pew suggests.

"At this stage, I think Japan is really the critical player in driving forward recovery of this fishery," Nickson said, expressing "great concern" over Japan's quota breach. And "this is not a population that can continue to withstand overfishing," she said.

Japan will need to deduct from next year's catch to compensate, but Nickson underscored how the true impact will be felt elsewhere. "This is one of the great challenges of international fisheries management -- that the consequences of those actions will really, unfortunately, be felt by the fish populations and the communities that are reliant on them," she said.

For countries dependent on the fishing trade for their livelihood, the more fishing titans like Japan and China fill their buckets, the smaller the bucket of a fisher on a small developing island nation.

Sustainable substitutes

Despite an apparent unwillingness to adopt tighter regulations at the government level, some action can be taken by consumers themselves. "Markets can play a critical role in conserving threatened species, and major businesses and consumers use their buying power to support more sustainable tuna fisheries," according to the Monterey Bay Aquarium, which works to promote sustainability in the seafood industry.

Mayanoki, a sushi restaurant on New York City's Lower East Side that offers only omakase chef-selected dishes, is dedicated to serving sustainable sushi. Patrons simply do without bluefin.

"The unfortunate part in the sushi industry is that most chefs believe they have to serve tuna because that's what customers want," co-founder David Torchiano said. "And that's just not true."

Though the restaurant has only 16 seats per night, reservations are taken in advance and nights are generally sold out. Such an intimate setting lets customers interact with chefs and other staffers. Torchiano estimates that 30% come for guilt-free dining on sustainably sourced fish.

Restaurants that serve bluefin are "ignoring reality" and doing "significant harm to our environment and to our customers and industry as well," Torchiano said. Should tuna populations collapse, "there will be a collapse of many other fish in the food chain, not just tuna," he warned.

Torchiano's message to sushi lovers on World Tuna Day: "Stop eating bluefin! The toro and otoro are really fatty and delicious, but we need to stop!"

"On a more serious note, though, we should be more selective" when deciding to eat sushi, "and customers should build a relationship with the restaurants they support," he said. "Customers should feel comfortable asking where the fish is from and how it was harvested."

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