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environment general science genetics health and medicine space technology January 23, 2003 
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Tuna Research & Conservation Center


How Sushi Went Global

Rhode Island Sea Grant tuna factsheet

The giant bluefin tuna is the priciest and most sought-after fish in the sea. And this ScienCentral News fish tale has a big news hook.

The journal Science has just released a report weighing in on an international controversy over the giant bluefin, which are capable of swimming much further than previously expected.

Researchers call for action

Atlantic bluefin tuna are the most sought-after fish in the sea, and they are getting to be the most fought-over as well. With new proof that bluefin tuna can, and do, cross the Atlantic in a matter of days, some are saying it doesn’t make sense that European overfishing regulations are much less stringent than those in the U.S. and Canada. Now a leading group of tuna researchers has taken the unusual step of weighing in on the controversy in a scientific research paper.

In this week’s journal Science, Stanford University biologist Barbara Block and colleagues at the Monterey Bay Aquarium and the National Marine Fisheries Service write:

"The recovery of Atlantic bluefin tuna breeding stocks is linked to the extent of contemporary mixing of mature Atlantic bluefin... The electronic tagging data indicate that mixing between the two management units exists at a higher level than ICCAT [International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas] has incorporated into base-case stock assessments... Future assessments of stock status should evaluate the new information and reassess the management strategies applied to Atlantic bluefin tuna."

Researchers at the New England Aquarium, the other main center for bluefin research, say their tagging, aerial and hydroacoustic data agree with Block’s conclusions. The timing of the paper seems guaranteed to force ICCAT, to consider its conclusions, both scientific and political. ICCAT’s first-ever scientific workshop on bluefin mixing begins September 3 in Madrid.

World’s priciest fish

The world-record priciest fish made headlines and newscasts around the world. In January, a single tuna sold for 100,000 yen per kilogram at auction at Tokyo’s famed Tsukiji Market. In dollars, at the exchange rate at the time, this works out to about $840 per kilo, or a total price of about $170,000 for the fish, which was purchased by a dealer for the sushi and sashimi market.

But experts are quick to point out that although tuna can command world-record prices, this is not the norm. Ted Bestor, professor of anthropology and Japanese studies at Harvard University, calls it "A ridiculous price, way through the roof. Why? Because it was the first tuna sold at auction in the new year (traditionally a time when a record-setting prices are offered). This was the first tuna not only of the year, but of the millennium, and it was a fish caught in Japanese waters."

Bestor says the dealer was purchasing publicity, and got it. "His friends at the Tsukiji market all laughed at him (and he lost money in the end), but he became famous," Bestor adds.

So what’s the real story? According to Bestor, the average auction price for tuna at at that time was about 4,000 yen per kilo, so this was 25 times the average price. He compares this differential to the New York real-estate market. "You can buy a condo in Trump Towers for four or five million or a co-op somewhere in the Bronx for $250,000. Both of prices may be accurate reflections of the NYC real estate market, but one doesn’t tell you very much about the other, or about the contexts that shape the prices for a particular thing."

That is not to deny the truth of the tuna’s "priciest fish in the sea" title. "Ten thousand dollars per fish at auction is extraordinary, but not unheard of," says Bestor. That doesn’t mean the fishermen make out. "Remember that an American fisher doesn’t get the full auction price. Costs of air freight (including the cost of shipping ice to Japan) have to be factored in, as well as handling and customs charges, plus the seller pays an auction commission of 5.5 percent," Bestor says.

"In my experience talking with U.S. fishermen over the years, their focus is not on the astronomical prices but on the averages, hoping and aiming to be able to command good, above-average per kilo prices on the fish they ship to Japan."

Bestor’s book about Tsukiji, Tokyo’s Marketplace, will be published by the University of California Press later this year.

by Joyce Gramza

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