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Japan: Dancing on the Grave of the Bluefin Tuna

The first bluefin tuna of the year sold in Tokyo has yet again garnered an astronomical price -- encouraging the view of this beleaguered animal as a high-status food when they deserve to stand with the white rhino and the mountain gorilla as a species under our protection.
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In what has now become an annual ritual, the first bluefin tuna of the year sold at Tsukiji Market in Tokyo has yet again garnered an astronomical price -- $1.76 million for a 489-pound fish. This is supposed to demonstrate the buyer's largesse to his customers and would be a laughable spectacle of profligacy if it didn't have such far-reaching consequences. In the face of crashing global bluefin stocks -- to the extent that most breeding populations are at 3-5 percent of their historical maximum -- this behavior is the equivalent of gorging oneself on the fish as the last of the species is moved past on its way to the slaughter pens. It encourages the view of this beleaguered animal as a high-status food when, given the facts, they deserve to stand with the white rhino and the mountain gorilla as a species under our protection.

It's not the first time the Japanese have demonstrated this sort of callousness and cynicism toward the bluefin. The night before the 2010 IUCN vote to determine the bluefin's status as an endangered species (for which it qualified on every count), the Japanese delegation served bluefin tuna to its delegates. Japan succeeded in derailing that vote by throwing around its political weight among smaller countries which could benefit from Japan's patronage and had little direct interest in the argument.

For years Mitsubishi Corporation, among others, has stockpiled frozen bluefin carcasses for the day when the fish is so rare that its thawed flesh will be worth far more than it is even now. Of course, when the 2011 tsunami struck Japan and destroyed the Fukushima Nuclear Plant, the power that supplied some of those freezers failed and thousands of tons of bluefin tuna were lost.

And, after long suspecting the Japanese in various schemes to illegally harvest and smuggle fish in the Pacific and Mediterranean, proof came to light in 2010 and 2012 that this was in fact the case. Japan, along with France, Spain, Panama, and others, were responsible for over 10,000 tons of bluefin being smuggled out of the Mediterranean over a 10-year period of time. During a similar time frame, Japan alone illegally harvested and moved more than 20,000 tons of bluefin tuna from the Pacific.

If any of these actions were committed against an endangered species like the snow leopard or the Bengal tiger, the result would be international outrage and condemnation. Why, in the instance of the bluefin tuna, is there only silence -- or worse, intrigue -- at the amount of money paid in this annual display?

Those of us who care that this fish persists can do all we wish to support the protection of local stocks but this will have little effect, given that the Japanese import 80 percent of the world's bluefin tuna and drive the global fishing and ranching industries responsible for the destruction of this fish. It is the Japanese people themselves who must wake up and break their code of conformity and deference to government authority in favor of reinvigorating their tradition of honor in the defense of this animal. Those of us who live outside of Japan can implore our representatives to pressure the Japanese wherever and whenever possible -- at international trade and fisheries bargaining tables most certainly -- but until Japanese consumers take it upon themselves to choose differently, there remains little hope that this magnificent buffalo of the sea will survive.

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