Ernest Hemingway was a freshwater fisherman until 1921 when he caught his first glimpse of a bluefin tuna in Vigo, Spain. The giant fish leaped "clear of the water and fell again with a noise like horses jumping off a dock," Hemingway wrote. Afterwards, the novelist became an ocean angler.
These days, the bluefin tuna's commercial value has utterly eclipsed its aesthetic appeal. According to Oceana, a US-based ocean conservation group, the bluefin tuna is the world's most expensive fish, with Tokyo fish dealers raking in between US$100 and US$220 (NT$7,000) per kilogram of the fish.
This year, the market value of prime bluefin belly meat is about NT$4,000 per kilogram in Taipei, according to the Ocean Ranch Corp (海洋牧場有限公司), a fish dealer in the Taipei Fish Market (台北魚市). "A whole bluefin weighing over 250kg could fetch up to NT$300,000 (US$10,000) [wholesale] in Taiwan," Ocean Ranch employee Li Kun-he (李坤和) told the Taipei Times. While that's considerably cheaper than the US$50,000-plus price tags of whole bluefin tunas in Tokyo fish auctions, any food fish selling at ten grand a pop will spawn big business anywhere. And Taiwan is no exception.
The nerve center of the country's bluefin trade is Tungkang (東港), Pingtung County, where every year from May to July, Taiwan's longliners haul in mammoth fish worthy of Hemingwayesque prose. With their cobalt blue backs and metallic luster, these tunas certainly look like one of God's costlier creations. So popular is the fish that Tungkang hosts a six-week festival every year to celebrate it. The Pingtung Bluefin Tuna Cultural Festival, held from May to June, features sculptures and seafood, with bluefin tuna sashimi being the big draw. Celebrities and politicians are often on hand to host tuna auctions to kickstart the bluefin revelry. Last year, President Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) auctioned off three bluefin tunas for NT$15 million at the festival.
The underside of the bluefin tuna industry, however, is a lot darker than the snowy white belly of the fish itself. With 90 percent of all mature predatory fish gone from the world's oceans, according to a 2003 Nature article, the bluefin is feared to be nearing extinction in the wild. The world's most commercially valuable fish, in addition to being ecologically controversial, also increasingly represents a flashpoint among major fishing countries as its numbers dwindle.
A recent case in point is the detention of seven Taiwanese fishing vessels and their operators by Philippine authorities. In another four cases last month, boats and crews were detained by Philippine military personnel pending payment of a ransom. According to local media, the Taiwanese boats were fishing for bluefin tuna in disputed waters near the Philippines. Taiwanese fishing vessels are regularly detained by neighboring countries, and are routinely shot at by Philippine authorities. Recent fishing-related clashes, including an incident last January in which Philippine maritime police opened fire on a Taiwan fishing vessel, killing its captain, have fueled speculation that the Pingtung Bluefin Tuna Cultural Festival, meant to boost the county's fishing industry, is also contributing to such confrontations on the open ocean. Peter Ho (何勝初), president of the Overseas Fisheries Development Council of the Republic of China (OFDC, 中華民國對外漁業發展協會), in an interview with the Taipei Times, admitted that the festival and the huge demand that it creates could be triggering the confrontations, and that the OFDC's efforts to educate Taiwanese fishermen as to where they should not venture have not been very successful. "Some fishermen go too far," Ho said.