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Why is Bluefin Tuna So Special?

Every January at Tokyo’s most legendary fish market, wealthy aficionados and businessmen bid on the year’ s first bluefin tuna. A symbolic, celebratory auction meant to bring excitement to the new year of one of Japan’s most prized fish, the tuna is never sold at market value; last year, a successful restaurateur bought the year’s first bluefin tuna at Tsukiji fish market for over US$1 million. Of course, that tuna will be sold at a loss, but never mind that, it would be more accurate to view the million-plus-dollar acquisition as a well-spent publicity stunt rather than a gross overpayment for a single fish.

At this year’s January sale, however, the first fish sold for a mere US$70,000 (still far above the market price, but much less than expected). According to Andrew David Thaler on his deep-sea blog Southern Fried Science, the exorbitant price of the symbolic tuna will be “presented as an argument against bluefin fishing,” and perhaps this year’s decline is an industry reaction to sharp criticism about overfishing, an attempt to mellow-out the ostentation in the face of serious international attention and pressure to stop the craze that will soon cause the species extinction.  Before brokering an agreement at the  Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission (IATTC) meeting in California a few weeks ago, Japan had proposed asking its importers to avoid buying Pacific bluefin tuna from Mexico to pressure the Mexican government to take measures to avoid overfishing of this species.  Read more in the Nov. 5 issue of SourceMex.

So, why the craze? What makes bluefin tuna so popular, and so incredibly valuable? We all know that preparing sushi and sashimi is a form of high art in Japan, so there must be an intricate, quality-based reason for bluefin tuna’s supremacy, right? Well, maybe not… turns out for quite some time, tuna (and especially the fat belly-cut we know pay so much for) was considered disgusting and at one point even used for cat food.

Foul-tasting’ fish 
Until after World War II, tuna was considered foul-tasting compared to the prized white flounder and mackerel fish, and tuna was mainly served as a poor-man’s food on the street. This history is strikingly similar to that of a prized delicacy in the U.S; the lobster. The crustacean was once served to prison inmates, before popularity surged in upscale, cosmopolitan markets.

Once Japanese society began absorbing a considerable influx of American culture during the 1950s and 1960s, the Japanese began demanding fattier, American style proteins, but tuna still remained largely unwanted and sold for pennies per pound. However, as Japan’s export economy entered a golden age, “Japanese airline cargo executives began promoting Atlantic bluefin for sushi so they’d have something to fill their planes with on their return trip from Tokyo.” The craze only increased, until today’s current mayhem, in which reports show that the Mitsubishi Corporation is even stockpiling frozen bluefin in order to control the world’s inventory at inflated prices once the species cannot be found any longer. That, and other shocking truths about the current state of the bluefin market can be seen in the documentary The End of the Line.

Despite the popularity and the high prices at the dinner table, real sushi aficionados in Japan still think of bluefin as a fatty, metallic tasting fish much inferior in quality to more traditional fish used for sashimi and sushi. Ironically, it seems, popularity in this market follows advertising trends, rather than the actual refined tastes of the experts.

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