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.
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.
A long line of three-wheeled electric carts steered by oversized circular handlebars, each with an attached four-foot-long wooden bed, whizzes through the narrow aisles of the Tsukiji fish market. Each is steered by a wild-eyed, sometimes smiling, sometimes glaring, Japanese fish monger – one of 60,000+ employees here in the world’s largest fish market – who would just as soon mow you down as avoid you. Balanced precariously on the back of each are a three hundred pound frozen tuna or a tall stack of Styrofoam boxes filled with fish or crushed ice or twenty, three-foot long, just-sawed swordfish steaks.
It’s just after six in the morning and the place has been alive for several hours, though it never really shuts down. The morning’s biggest event – the auction of hundreds of big blue fin tuna – has just finished and its results are being delivered one-by-one to many of the 900 individual stalls in the open-air market. Sunrise pouring through the dust-covered skylights of the 74-year-old market mixes with the flourescents that light up each small shop, crammed side by side and fronted by tables heavily laden with Styrofoam containers filled with just-dead fish of more than four hundred species and tanks and plastic bags filled with those still swimming.
The Tsukiji (skee-gee) fish market – more officially the Tokyo Metropolitan Central Wholesale Market – is Mecca for fish purveyors and sushi lovers alike. (The more general name is appropriate since under the same roof there are big produce and flower auctions as well … though it’s hard to compare the excitement of bidding for bell peppers with that of this year’s biggest tuna to date, 261 pounds.) For several mornings we’ve gotten up before four a.m. and woken a taxi driver slumbering in his own front seat in order to be here the moment the tuna auction allows its first visitors in. Alex and I have a particular curiosity because over the years we’ve filmed big tuna in the wild and in farms that were ultimately headed here. Seeing them lined up on the floor – frozen, detailed and numbered with red food coloring — means we’ve followed them nearly full circle. Our morning sushi-break at 8:30 means we will have truly followed them through the entirely of their lives.
If you care about the health of the world’s ocean and its decreasing abundance of fish, you have to be fascinated by this place for both its size and the economy it creates. Jobs here are highly sought, whether as cart drivers, salesmen, cutters, icemakers, deliverymen, auctioneers or buyers (the emphasis on men is purposeful: of the 60,000-plus workers a tiny handful are women; only a very few work the floor, most are accountants). An American living in Tokyo tells us he is trying desperately to get a job in the market, in part because it pays well and in part because he would be such an oddity. “They will only tell me I’m ‘too tall,’ “ he says, “but what they are really saying is that I’m ‘too white.’ “Each year more than 700,000 metric tons of seafood is sold beneath the market’s roof, roughly $5.5 billion worth.
Walking the narrow aisles among the nine hundred small vendors it’s easy to see how we’ve done such a good job at decimating fish stocks around the world; of course it’s not just the Japanese who are doing so, but they have a per capita consumption of fish far outstripping the rest of the world. Though the market sits on the Tokyo Harbor, virtually all of the fish arrives by truck, some from Japan, most from seas thousands of miles from here.
There are two distinct sections of the market: The “inner market” (jonai shijo) is the licensed wholesale market, where the auctions and most of the processing of the fish take place, and where licensed wholesale dealers operate small stalls. The “outer market” (jogai shijo) is a mixture of wholesale and retail shops selling kitchen tools, restaurant supplies, groceries and seafood, and narrow restaurants, especially sushi restaurants. On our first morning we choose to have breakfast alongside the rubber-booted workers, rather than wait in the long lines of tourists outside the most popular sushi shops, on pork steaks, cabbage and rice.
The market handles more than four hundred different types of seafood from tiny sardines to six hundred pound tuna, from cheap seaweed to the most expensive caviar. On one counter a live squid is gutted in front of us, its ink squirting everywhere; next-door band saws cut through just-thawing tuna; at the end of the aisle the most popular man in the market – the ice man – lugs fifty-pound blocks of ice to a conveyor which carries it to its crushing. Just beyond the market’s door rises a mountain of Styrofoam boxes being picked over by representatives of all the stalls inside; if still intact the boxes are reused, if cracked or broken they are fed by conveyor into a crusher to be recycled into paving bricks.
The history of the market goes back a century. In August 1918, following the so-called “Rice Riots” (Kome Soudou), which broke out in over one hundred cities and towns in protest against food shortages and the speculative practices of wholesalers, the Japanese government was forced to create new institutions for the distribution of foodstuffs, especially in urban areas. A Central Wholesale Market Law was established in March 1923. The Great Kantō earthquake on September 1, 1923, devastated much of central Tokyo, including the Nihonbashi fish market. In the aftermath of the earthquake, the market was relocated to the Tsukiji district, completed in 1935.
At a neat stall on the backside of the market a trio of men labor over six foot long swordfish, cutting them down to steaks. The master cutter – armed with extremely long, extremely sharp knives – operates on a hydraulic table, which he raises and lowers with his foot. Fresh water runs from a hose washing blood into a drain (amazingly, the whole market smells very … clean … no fish smell at all). With rapid, elegant cuts along its spine he splits it in two and then quarters each side. His partner reduces them to steaks, wraps them in paper towels and plastic and stacks them to be distributed.
I ask if they think there will come a day when we take the last fish from the sea. I’m only partially joking, and translating my question is tricky. But they get the point. Everyone I’ve talked with in the market admits the fish they’re selling today are far smaller than ten years ago; we’ve taken all of the biggest fish already.
“It’s not like cows or chickens,” says the man cutting steaks. “You can’t simply grow more. We never know exactly what’s in the sea, do we? But when these species are gone, I believe there will be more to take their place. I think my job is very secure!”