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Upbeat bluefin tuna auction hides plight of popular delicacy

Although abundant at market, stocks of fish at sea remain seriously depleted

A 405kg bluefin tuna at the Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo with its owner, Hiroshi Onodera, left, president of a chain of sushi restaurants. The fish fetched 36.45 million yen at the market's first tuna auction of the year.   © Reuters

TOKYO / NEW YORK -- Fishermen in Oma, northern Japan, were celebrating on Friday as one of their prized bluefin tuna fetched the most money during 2018's first auction at Tokyo's famed Tsukiji fish market.

It was the seventh straight year that the town reeled in the year's most expensive bluefin, this one costing 36.45 million yen ($323,000), or 90,000 yen per kilogram. Although exorbitant, the price was only about half that of last year's winner, and less than a quarter of the record 155 million yen paid for one of the town's bluefin in 2013.

Wholesalers and experts blame abundant supply for lower prices, but this claim disguises the fact that stocks of the popular fish are still seriously depleted.

Abundance a mirage

Japan accounts for about 80% of bluefin tuna consumption worldwide. The fish is mainly served raw as sashimi and sushi. But appetites for raw fish are spreading fast to other parts of Asia, including China, prompting fishermen to bring home more.

According to Pew Charitable Trusts, supplies of bluefin tuna have increased in recent years, causing prices to sink 15-20% between 2014 and 2017.

The drop has hurt fishermen, but the abundant supply at markets also concerns conservationists, who are still trying to coax Pacific bluefin back from near extinction.

"The high price paid today for a single Pacific bluefin tuna should not distract from the dire status of the species," said James Gibbon, global tuna conservation officer for the Pew Charitable Trusts. The population of Pacific bluefin tuna has leveled off in the past couple of years after falling precipitously since the 1950s, but still sits at very depleted levels, according to Gibbon.

Wholesalers check the quality of tuna before auction at the Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo on Jan. 5.   © Reuters

Serious efforts to restore bluefin stocks began only recently. Prior to 2010, there were no limits on the amount of fish countries could take. Last year, an agreement was reached among major fishing nations, including Japan, South Korea and the U.S., that set a goal of restoring the Pacific bluefin tuna population to about 20% of pre-fishing levels by 2034.

It is up to each country to allocate quotas within their domestic fisheries and to ensure that procedures are in place so that catch limits are observed.

Fishermen under the gun

This month, Japan introduced penalties for overfishing, signaling its commitment to rebuild bluefin stocks. Under a new law, fishermen who exceed their quotas face steep fines or imprisonment for up to three years.

The strict penalties leave fishermen in Oma worried. The town has invested years creating a brand buzz for its catch, going so far as to mark each tuna with the date of shipment and the name of the trawler so restaurateurs know what they are serving.

But the region where Oma's fishing community is based has already used up more than 95% of its current quota, with penalties looming should it exceed their limit. 

Moreover, more controls are on the horizon. This year, a Catch Documentation System is expected to be developed. The system will track the movement of every bluefin tuna in the supply chain -- from catch and auction to delivery at a restaurant -- in order to detect illegal fishing.

This may help give the beleaguered bluefin a break, but at the expense of Japanese fishing communities who depend on the fish for their livelihood.

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