Magazine article International Wildlife

$20,000 for One Fish? Bluefin Tuna May Be Worth Too Much for Their Own Good

Magazine article International Wildlife

$20,000 for One Fish? Bluefin Tuna May Be Worth Too Much for Their Own Good

Article excerpt

Bathed in the dazzling glare

Of the lights, the tunas seem

As if they're floating.

Kozaburo Omura (Translated from his collection of Japanese tuna poetry)

IN THE PITCH BLACK OF NIGHT, a queue of trucks waits, engines running. From the rear of the first, hands shove a dark, bulky carcass overboard. It plops onto a strategically placed old tire, bounces, then comes to rest. It is a bluefin tuna--one of the world's largest bony fish and the most valuable.

Enter a trim, compact man with jet-black hair. Having spent 41 of his 57 years on these chilly, wet floors at Tokyo's Tsukiji Central Wholesale Market, Makoto Nozue surveys the frenetic activity in the tuna auction area with the relaxed air of a general. It is now 5 A.M., and with only 30 minutes left to the auction bell, Nozue's fellow tuna "jobbers," or intermediate wholesalers, are giving the goods--which look like rows of small beached whales--a final once-over.

With flashlights and ice picks, they bend over carcasses, pecking at meat like prospectors for gold. The gold in this case is fat. Fat resists freezing, so premium fish are easy to stab, while inferior ones resonate like rock.

But "gold" also describes the premium tunas in a very literal sense. A bluefin sells for about $20,000 on average, with the rare giant going for more than three times that amount.

Like many of the world's commercial species, bluefins are becoming scarce, especially in the western Atlantic. Other overfished stocks are no longer worth the expense of catching, but with men like Nozue paying top yen for tuna, fishermen will chase one bluefin for weeks--and chase the species, conservationists fear, toward extinction.

The Western environmental movement has targeted the bluefin as a flagship cause. As Carl Safina from the National Audubon Society puts it, "The bluefin tuna represents everything that's wrong with fisheries management."

Japan is the world's largest consumer of bluefin, and most of it passes through this 60-year-old dockside market en route to the sushi bar. Jobbers find themselves in the midst of a global furor. The dispute is erupting in various forums, including the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), which sets restrictions on selling rare animals and plants. CITES meets in the United States this November to refine the trading ground-rules, often a contentious process, pitting the values of one nation against another's.

Under the lamplight

Tunas at New Year's auction

Eye us wardy.

The "auction" is actually many small ones, some with no more than a dozen men. They may crowd a small stand but more often simply cluster around the neat rows of fish at the huge warehouse. Bidding is a blur of hand signals: Index finger for 1,000 yen per kilo; index finger flashed to thumb for 1,600 yen per kilo, and so on.

Albacore is the cheapest of the half-dozen tuna species. it and other less-expensive tunas are familiar to most North Americans as the stuff in the cans. Bluefins, however, are too pricey for the sandwich trade.

Once a year or so, bidding heads skyward for a quirk of nature--a bluefin of unusual heft offered fresh rather than frozen. A 325-kilogram 715-lb. bluefin sold for $69,273.30 in 1992, but such specimens are rare. The average wholesale price that year was $51.98 a kilo for local bluefins and $46.58 for imported ones. In seconds, each fish finds an owner.

After the auctions, jobbers retire to their huge warren of stalls adjoining the auction area to slice up the fish and await customers--supermarket and fish-stand managers, and restaurant owners, including the occasional elegant proprietrees shopping in full kimono, a basket-carrying servant at her side.

At 7 A.M., the metropolis outside still slumbers, but here the din is ferocious. Tsukiji Market is perhaps the last bit of japan that acts Third World. …

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