A month ago I reported on the first bluefin tuna of the year sold at auction during the first week of the year at the big Japan fish market Tsukiji, a 513-pounder sold for $177,000, to a trio of sushi entrepreneurs who split the price and the fish, which ended up on restaurant platters across Tokyo and Hong Kong.
Bluefin Tuna at Auction, Tokyo
If the EU has anything to say about it, much of its bluefin – which makes up the bulk sold in Japan — may soon be off-limits to the world market; last week France agreed to join the majority of the 27-nation union to list bluefin as an “Appendix 1” endangered species under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). With that, bluefin would be afforded the same protection as pandas and whales, effectively banning international trade in the fish. A final decision will be made in Doha next month, at a meeting of the 175 nations signatory to the CITES treaty.
The Japanese, obviously, will oppose the listing. The U.S. hasn’t yet weighed in officially. Bluefin in the same category as pandas and whales? It’s hard to believe, isn’t it? But the statistics are stunning: Since 1978 the bluefin population in the Atlantic has dropped by 82 percent, largely due to the global boom in sushi, a burgeoning demand in Japan. About one million big bluefin are caught each year (out of a total global population under four million) and eighty percent are sent straight to Japan.
Of course adding the fish to a list will hardly insure it’s future (think whales in the Southern Ocean, despite international bans on all whale hunting). It’s not a perfect solution. Banning bluefin will take a toll on fishermen around the world; experts also warn that the banning of trade would not end the sale of tuna in restaurants and stores. Of the other species, including yellowfin, skipjack, bigeye and albacore, the skipjack is the only one not suffering from serious population decline linked to overfishing. One problem with banning bluefin is that it will increase pressure on the other tuna species.
The U.S. fishing industry – especially the American Bluefin Tuna Association – is “strongly opposed” to the listing. Its executive director suggests it will lead to a sizable black market, “in fact, we believe a listing has the possibility of doing more damage than good.”
In the first few days of each new year, the first bluefin tuna sold at the world’s largest fish market – Tsukiji – goes for record prices. This year’s version, bought by a trio of sushi restaurants (two in Tokyo, one in Hong Kong) sold today for $177,000. The three restaurants will split the big fish into thirds and for a week starting tomorrow each will have lines of sushi-lovers lined up around the block waiting to get in. Not because it’s necessarily the best tuna of the year, but the first.
As the Associated Press reports, the 513-pound (233-kilogram) fish was the priciest since 2001 when a 440-pound (200 kilogram) tuna sold for a record 20.2 million yen ($220,000) at Tokyo’s Tsukiji market.
Caught off the coast of northern Japan, the big tuna was among 570 put up for auction Tuesday. About 40 percent of the auctioned fish came from abroad, including from Indonesia and Mexico.
Japan is the world’s biggest consumer of seafood with Japanese eating 80 percent of the Atlantic and Pacific bluefins caught. The two tuna species are the most sought after by sushi lovers. However, tuna consumption in Japan has declined because of a prolonged economic slump as the world’s second-largest economy struggles to shake off its worst recession since World War II.
”Consumers are shying away from eating tuna … We are very worried about the trend,” a market representative told the AP.
Apart from falling demand for tuna, wholesalers are worried about growing calls for tighter fishing rules amid declining tuna stocks.
The International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas in November slashed the quota for the 2010 catch by about one-third to 13,500 tons (12,250 metric tons) — a move criticized by environmentalists as not going far enough.
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.
My first glimpse of Tsukiji fish market’s big, daily tuna auction is surreal: A thousand frozen blue fin tuna – weighing between one and two hundred pounds each – laid out in symmetrical rows on a concrete floor. That the first look is through a scratched plastic peephole, blurring the edges of the scene, makes it evermore otherworldly.
A pair of cavernous auction rooms sits at the far back of the market. Entry to each is through eight big yellow canvas roll-down doors, each bay representing a different company. Beginning around three a.m. the big fish are laid out; an hour later buyers or their representatives – from restaurants, supermarkets and vendors within the market – arrive to begin their daily inspection. This being Japan it is all very prompt: At 5:30 the first side of the room is auctioned, at 6 the second side. By 6:15, 6:20 at the latest, tuna are being dragged out and loaded onto carts to be sent all around Tsukiji, Tokyo and cities beyond, some destined for as far away as China.
Tuna are the biggest business in the world’s biggest fish market. Japanese love their blue fin and pay dearly. The biggest and best sell for $50,000, $80,000, occasionally more than $100,000. For a single fish. Last night we visited a high-end sushi joint in the chi-chi neighborhood of Ginza, which had split the cost of this year’s traditional “first” tuna with another restaurant, on January 8th – for a 129 kilos (261 pounds) tuna they paid more than $104,000. For the next several days’ lines stretched around the block for a taste.
The tuna come to Tsukiji from all over the world; Japanese processing boats scour the Indian Ocean, Mediterranean Sea and elsewhere buying up everything they can. They are not alone. One result of this rapacious demand, according to the World Wildlife Fund, is that blue fin tuna may be wiped out in the next few years.
This morning laid out in neat rows, still wearing sheen of frost and numbered with red food die there would appear to be no worry about running out of tuna. Each fish is split along its belly and a chunk has been cut out of its side to be used as a handhold. The tail has been cut off and a circular piece of meat dangles there by a thin piece of skin. A flap of meat has been cut flayed back near the tail, which is the main spot of inspection. Apparently the back and forth motion of the tail generates lots of oil in the fish and the more oil the better.
More than one hundred buyers mill about the frozen fish, in a kind of uniform: Blue coveralls or jacket with company name in white on the chest. Rubber boots. Ball cap with official badge indicating the buyer’s number pinned to its peak. The tools of the trade are simple: A flashlight, a wooden handled metal hook for lifting and probing, a cloth or paper towel hanging from the belt for wiping off fingers and hands post probing, a tiny notebook for jotting in and a cell phone for communicating with an absent boss. My favorite shopper is tall for a Japanese and wears a green windbreaker the same color as his dyed green hair, which is swept back Elvis-style. He’s got to be in his sixties, wears thick glasses and jokes with everyone around him as he inspects.
The inspection is equivalent to the kicking of a new car’s tires. With one finger the flap of meat near where the tail used to be is lifted and a flashlight shined on the exposed meat. Sometimes the flap is held back with the wooden handled hook, the density of the meat of the meat tested with hook or simply eyeballed. If they like what they see they will whack at the met with the metal hook, opening up the still mostly frozen tuna and then dig into it with their fingers, pulling out a red morsel which they roll in their fingers into a ball. Sometimes they take a big sniffing of the rare meat. I half expect them to pull a bottle of soy out of their pocket, juice it up and have a taste. I watch to see if they slip the meat into their pockets for later, but instead they most often drop it onto the floor, wipe their fingers on the towel hung from their belt and move onto the next fish. The biggest buyers bid on lots, buying a half-dozen at a time; some are here for an individual fish.
I’m curious about the hierarchy of the market and try to ask a couple Japanese men standing beside me. My assumption is that the auctioneers must be near the top of the heap. They say no, contending that everyone at the market – whether truck driver, fish cutter, icemaker or auctioneer – is equal. I ask who owns the market and they say they think it is three men. Which makes me wonder if it’s anything like the Fulton Fish Market in New York, which was long “administered” by the mob? One thing is clear: There are very few women and no Caucasians (“too tall,” they are told if they apply).
At exactly 5:30 the first of the two morning auctions begins with frantic hand bell ringing by four simultaneous auctioneers, each representing a different company, each standing on a blue step stool in front of one of the bay doors. Each rings with a different fervor and pace, beginning to shout out loud as the ringing increases. With a quick doff of his ball cap – to the fish, the spirits at large? – each is off, shouting and gesticulating, faces turning bright red, yelling what sounds to the non-Japanese ear something like, “TACO TACO TACO …. HIPPO HIPPO HIPPO … SAMPLE SAMPLE SAMPLE … TACO TACO TACO … SAPPY SAPPY SAPPY …” at the top of their lungs.
Each auctioneer has a personal style, bobbing and weaving and shouting in odd fashion, each channeling some kind of individual tuna god. My favorite is a tall man in a blue jumpsuit and brown ball cap, wearing thick glasses and a # 2 pencil stuck in a sleeve pocket. He notates madly in a little book even as his calling gets louder, more fervent, his face maroon, eyes glancing up towards the fluorescents as if he were channeling directly from the god of the sea, yet somehow registering the subtle finger lifting from buyers until calling out the Japanese equivalent of GOING … GOING … GONE. As he shouts a pair of men on either side note with pencil on paper the winning bids and then quickly mark each fish sold with a thick black magic marker.
The whole shebang lasts about ten minutes, sending several hundred fish towards cutting tables scattered around the sprawling market.
Twenty minutes later the second half of the warehouse is auctioned. I keep my eye on an individual buyer, representing a vendor inside the market. I watched him study a particular fish – at one point turning his back to it and grabbing it between his legs, I’m guessing to judge its weight? As soon as his bid was accepted he turned his ball cap around – the number on the metal plate pinned to its peak is his i.d. – he pulled out his hook, grabbed his fish and began dragging it towards the door. Using the handhold cut in its side he hoisted it onto a waiting, man-pulled cart and trailed it off into the maelstrom, on its way by days end to someone’s table.
The direct flight from New York to Tokyo is one of the longest, thirteen hours and forty-five minutes, looping across Canada and the Bering Sea before paralleling Kamchatka and the eastern islands of Japan. It’s a long way to travel for humans and viruses alike … though I have to admit I hadn’t thought about the latter until we touched down at Narita International Airport and found among the departure cards we needed to fill out included one labeled “contagion.”
Alex Nicks and I have come to spend a few days filming tuna auctions at Tsujiki, the world’s largest fish market – all under one open air roof are sold four hundred different fish species (700,000 tons sold each year, taking in $5.5 billion a year) and employing 60,000-65,000 wholesalers, accountants, auctioneers, company officials and distributors. The next few days promise to be fun and wild, thanks to the constant whir of all those people focused on the matter at hand: selling and buying big fish.
But when we land at Narita, even before we can stand and stretch after the long flight, the plane is boarded by a dozen Japanese men and women cloaked in blue surgical gowns, caps and masks. We are instructed to stay in our seats as one of the insurgents, carrying a portable thermographic imaging gun to detect fevers, points it in our faces, clicks the trigger and quickly assesses whether or not we are swine flu carriers. As the besmocked team moves row by row through the plane one of the stewardesses whispers that they recently quarantined eight passengers arriving on a Northwest flight for five days. While I have no idea what that encompasses – locking them in a small airport room, sliding sushi and water under the door? – I’m certainly hoping it doesn’t happen to us. Next to me, Nicks coughs.
Of course our boarders are clearly looking for symptoms of flu, including coughs and colds. A week ago three Japanese were quarantined upon arrival in Tokyo after testing positive in preliminary checks. They were a high school teacher in his 40s and two teenage boys who had been on a school trip to Canada where they visited Ontario on a home stay program with about 30 other students. They were isolated upon arrival and are still recovering at a hospital near the airport.
A couple days ago thirty-seven passengers and two flight attendants on an American Airlines flight from Los Angeles were detained overnight for similar reasons. They were released after tests revealed that an ill passenger was not contaminated with the new H1N1 influenza A strain, or swine flu. Looking down the aisle as the blue-gowned, thermo-armed team works its way through cattle class I wonder if that will be our fate too?
Cleared after one hour, they give each of us our very own face mask and send us on our way. When we finally arrive in downtown Tokyo I spot random individuals on the street wearing white surgical masks. Taxi drivers, worker bees on lunch break, students. It’s a different scene here than in China though, where many of the half billion city dwellers wear masks every day to keep away airborne particulates created by coal burning, auto exhaust and general everyday pollution of the air.
In Japan, as neat and orderly a country as you’ll find on the planet, it appears they are still very concerned about swine flu. Stopping into a drugstore I ask the manager how the sales of masks are going and he says “about 50 percent higher than usual and we are running out …. If this keeps up, it’s going to be a very, very good year.” I think he was talking about his pharmacy’s bottom line.