Since a 2003 swim in a fish farm net in the Adriatic Sea with ninety-three, 500-600 pound blue fin tuna … I’ve been slightly obsessed with the lifespan and future of the big fish. Once a voracious fan of lightly seared tuna on the grill and anything tuna in my sushi, I’m off the blue fin for a half-year now. Why? Because my voraciousness has been matched around the world by millions – especially in seafood hungry Japan – putting the big tuna at great risk. The World Wildlife Fund predicts at our current rate of rapacious consumption, the world’s blue fin will be gone by 2012.
To that end, we took video cameras to Tokyo in May for a firsthand look at its Tsukiji market – the biggest seafood market in the world (65,000 employees, $5.5 billion a year, more than 400 species of fish sold six days a week – especially its twice-daily blue fin auction. The tuna, frozen, with their tails cut off to provide closer inspection of its oil and fat content (lots of both is best), go for tens of thousands of dollars each. We talked with fish mongers about the future of blue fin, and all the fish in the sea in general, and they were occasionally painfully honest (“I think we may see the last fish caught”) but more typically deluded (“The problem for tuna is not man, but the whales which eat them!”).
Japanese consume thirty percent of the world’s seafood and in that sashimi-loving nation blue fin are known as “black gold.” Now it appears that even in Japan tuna lovers are starting to realize that blue fin may soon be a thing of the past. A Times report tells the story of the northern fishing town of Oma, where ten, twenty years ago small fishing boats would routinely catch three or four wild tuna a day. Now the town’s fleet of thirty to forty boats is lucky to catch a half-dozen among them on a good day.
“The problem,” – report the fishermen – is that all the fish are being taken by big trawlers that come from elsewhere in Japan, or farther out to sea from Taiwan or Japan. Some of these ships even use helicopters to spot schools of tuna, which they scoop up in vast nets or catch en masse with long lines of baited hooks.” The bottom line is that fishing is no longer about luck and increasingly about high technology. Fish finders, GPS, satellite communication win out over local knowledge or fish sense. That the local Japanese fishermen are growing increasingly frustrated with their own government for not stepping in with limits on who can catch, how much and with what tools is ironic since the same kind of industrial fishing has essentially depleted previously rich blue fin grounds like the Mediterranean and the east coast of the United States.
In Oma, things are even worse than the fishermen’s catch being down. Scarcity has driven up the price of blue fin to such a degree that locals can no longer afford their favorite sashimi.