It is the king of sushi, one of the most expensive fish in the world and dwindling so rapidly that some fear it could vanish from restaurant menus within a generation.
Yet there is little alarm in Japan, the country that consumes about 80 percent of the world’s bluefin tuna. Japanese fisheries experts blame cozy ties between regulators and fishermen and a complacent media for failing to raise public awareness.
“Nobody really knows the bad state bluefin tuna is in,” veteran sushi chef Kazuo Nagayama said from his top-end sushi bar in Tokyo’s Shimbashi District. “I don’t think it’ll disappear, but we might not be able to catch any. It’s obvious we need to set quotas.”
Catching bluefin tuna, called hon-maguro in Japan, is a lucrative business. A single full-grown specimen can sell for ￥2 million (US$22,000) at Tokyo’s Tsukiji Fish Market. Japanese fishermen are vying with their South Korean, Taiwanese and Mexican counterparts for a piece of a US$900 million a year wholesale market.
Fish dealers at Tsukiji Market say the number of bluefin sold at early morning auctions has fallen over the past 10 to 15 years, but most are confident the supply will never run out. Sushi bars and supermarkets still readily sell the fish, which is considered a special treat that families might splurge on once a month. There is no government campaign to encourage people to rein in their appetites for the iconic Japanese food.
A scientific assessment released in January found that Pacific bluefin spawning stocks have plummeted by about three-quarters over the past 15 years to match historic lows last seen in the early 1980s. It estimated that the species has dwindled to just 3.6 percent of its original population and that more than 90 percent of fish caught were between the ages of 0 and 3, before they reach reproductive maturity.
The report, compiled by the International Scientific Committee for Tuna and Tuna-like Species in the Northern Pacific and based on data through 2010, received scant coverage in the Japanese press.
The Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan’s largest newspaper, ran a brief story that ignored the drop in numbers and focused on a projection offered by the report’s authors that Pacific stocks could triple by 2030 if current “effort limits” were fully enforced — coverage that a senior Japanese Fisheries Agency of Japan (JFA) official blasted as “misleading.”
Reports earlier this year about the record ￥155.4 million sale of a Pacific bluefin at the Tsukiji Market focused on the exorbitant price and the buyer, saying little about the species’ falling numbers.
The drop follows similar plunges in the other two bluefin species, the Atlantic and the southern, which are now protected by catch quotas experts say need to be applied to their Pacific cousins.
Without stricter caps, “there is a high likelihood that Pacific bluefin will become less available to Japanese consumers,” said Masayuki Komatsu, a former senior agency official.
Japan has two choices, he said: impose catch quotas or “stop eating the bluefin to protect it.”
Overfishing of the Atlantic bluefin, much of it shipped to Japan, got so bad that an export ban was proposed in 2010 at a meeting of the 175-nation Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. The proposal was rejected and Atlantic bluefin stocks recovered slightly last year after quotas were imposed, although environmental groups say the population remains fragile.
While the media plays a role, the agency, domestic scientists and fishing industry are mainly responsible for failing to address the problem and keeping the public in the dark, Komatsu and other critics say. During his tenure at the agency until 2005, regulators were often more intent on protecting fishermen than resources and reluctant to publicize information about declining stocks or impose catch limits, he said.
“Government officials don’t want to accept the facts,” Komatsu said. “Their constituents are fishermen. ... In order to be successful as a government official, you have to listen to the fishermen because they are closely connected to the politicians. It’s all very short-sighted.”
Toshio Katsukawa, a fisheries professor at Mie University in western Japan, said the industry has been allowed to pursue indiscriminate fishing for years.
“This is undermining Japan’s own national interests,” he said.
That may have been a valid criticism in the past, agency deputy director-general Masanori Miyahara said. However, over the past five or six years “our policy has changed,” he said in an interview in his Tokyo office.
“Previously, there was almost no control over the bluefin catch because so many fishermen were catching them. The JFA just gave up,” Miyahara said. “But now we are in a position of control.”
He added that limits imposed in 2011 on domestic fishermen using large, encircling “purse seine” nets — which scoop up vast amounts of fish, including many young ones — during the spawning season in the Sea of Japan have reduced the catch of juveniles by more than one-quarter.
Japan also has joined 2011 “effort limits” — such as limiting the number of vessels — called for by the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission, the regional fisheries body that monitors the western two-thirds of the Pacific Ocean. The commission will meet in Tokyo in September to consider whether to strengthen catch restrictions.
Japan also has placed caps on the number of tuna farms, which take young tuna caught at sea and raise them in coastal waters, and is registering its 13,000 independent fishermen to better monitor their catch, Miyahara said.
However, conservation groups say the measures are full of loopholes and not well enforced, while Japanese fishermen complain that South Korean boats are not similarly constrained.
While Japanese consumers are very sensitive about food safety and quality, awareness about resource management is still not very prevalent. Major retailer Aeon Co has 50 products with a special blue label from the Marine Stewardship Council, which certifies sustainable marine foods. However, these products account for only 3 percent of Aeon’s total fish sales.
Some US and European sushi restaurants have removed bluefin from their menus, but Nagayama has not heard of that in Japan.
He tries to minimize the amount of the fish he uses, but says he needs to have it on hand because customers request it. A piece of pink o-toro fatty tuna goes for ￥2,000 at his shop.
“We’re a top-end sushi bar, so we need to have it,” the 71-year-old chef said.