Insanity Caused By Eating Bluefin Tuna

Recently, the owner of several sushi restaurants in Japan paid nearly $1.8 million U.S. dollars for a single bluefin tuna.  Last year this same individual paid what was then a record price—about $ 740,000.

Photo by Carl Safina

With this year’s fish the man outdid—not to say outbid—himself. But presumably other bidders were pushing the price into orbit before the auctioneer pronounced, “Sold!”

Why would anyone pay that much for one fish, wholesale?

Well, first of all, I have no idea if he can retail it at a profit. If he can, the problem is bigger than the fish.

There is some of the old supply and demand at work. This year’s fish weighed about 500 pounds; not particularly large for this species, which can reach three times that size. Or could. If they survived that long.

Photo: Bluefin tuna swimming
Bluefin faster than shredded water; photo by Carl Safina

Bluefin tuna are everywhere depleted by overfishing, down to single-digit percentages of former abundance in most places where they still swim. Bluefins criss-cross the North Pacific on great migrations, transiting from Japan to Mexico. A nearly identical form swims the North Atlantic, where schools from distinct breeding populations in the Gulf of Mexico and Mediterranean merge in migrations on the open ocean, ranging to Canada and Great Britain before going back to their origins to breed. And a southern bluefin plies the waters around Australia, New Zealand and the Indian Ocean. They were formerly very abundant in the North Sea where they were caught commercially. That’s gone. And they were also caught in large numbers in the tropical Atlantic between Africa and Brazil, but overfishing in the 1960s seems to have wiped them off that part of the map.

Photo: head of dead bluefin tuna
Photo by Carl Safina

A new report shows that the Pacific population from which the latest most-paid-for fish was killed is down to about 4 percent of its former abundance.  It costs a lot more now, to catch one. Most of them are caught small and young. That’s one reason big ones are so expensive. But that doesn’t explain why people are willing to pay so much. After all, no one needs million-dollar fish for food. (Though a lot of people need food, and many of them can’t afford three meals a day. Some can’t afford any meals.) So the reasons are psychological.

The man says—as he did last year—that he paid so much, “to give Japan a boost.”

What duh? No; the man seems to badly need attention. So I’m not mentioning him by name here. My feeling is, he doesn’t need more advertising from me; he needs counseling.

In a world of such need, wouldn’t it have been a nice “boost” of a gesture for him, on behalf of his lavish, obscenely priced restaurants, to give the $1.8 million to hungry people? Or even to give away $1.8 million—or, hey, even just a million—in free sushi in poor neighborhoods? Or even give a mere half million to a conservation organization or two or three that is actually working to ensure that the world’s bluefin tuna populations can be pulled out of their global tailspin so that sloppily rich people can continue slurping slivers of their muscle for years to come? (I know, I know; that was just kind of a silly suggestion.)

The bluefin tuna, a priceless piece of evolution at its ocean-going peak, is now simply worth too much dead to be allowed to live, anywhere. An infinitesimally small fraction of the human population who can throw money around like that, but enough to be disastrous to the world’s big wildlife.

Photo: Bluefin tuna headed for Japan
Headed for Japan; photo by Carl Safina

Bluefin tuna, the species, are no longer the abundant wonders they once were. Catching them is no longer simply a fishery. It’s an insanity, an obscenity, a sick and sad obsession. An illness.

And you know as well as I that will prices like this on its head, it will continue to be mercilessly pursued to the very end, if the market will bear the unbearable. And that if any fishing boat captain knew that he had just raised to the surface the very last bluefin tuna on Earth, his thought would be: “I’m about to get rich.”

Human Journey

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Ecologist Carl Safina is author of seven books, including the best-selling “Beyond Words; What Animals Think and Feel,” and “Song for the Blue Ocean,” which was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. His writing has won a MacArthur “genius” prize; Pew and Guggenheim Fellowships; book awards from Lannan, Orion, and the National Academies; and the John Burroughs, James Beard, and George Rabb medals. His work has been featured in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, National Geographic, CNN.com and elsewhere, and he hosted the 10-part “Saving the Ocean” on PBS. Safina is founding president of The Safina Center at Stony Brook University.