Fool’s Gold: Giant Tuna Sold for Nearly $400,000 in Tokyo

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A behemoth bluefin tuna sold for a record 32.49 million yen — or about $396,000 — in Tokyo’s famed Tsukiji fish market on Wednesday, smashing the 2001 record when a bluefin auctioned for 20.2 million.

The fish, bought by a sushi restaurant in Tokyo’s Ginza district and a Hong Kong sushi chain, weighed in at market at an incredible 754 pounds. That prices out to about $526 per pound wholesale and places it in the ranks of the most expensive foods in the world.

“It was an exceptionally large fish,” a Tsukiji spokesman told the AP. “But we were all surprised by the price.”

Why did the beast catch such an astronomical price? Perhaps because it was Tsukiji’s first auction of the new year. Perhaps because Japan, which consumes 80% of the world’s bluefin, can’t get enough of a good thing. Or perhaps because, with rampant overfishing of the bluefin tuna throughout the world’s oceans, it is incredibly rare to find a fish this big in the wild anymore.

I’m placing my bets on the latter.  Fish, after all, don’t get to be 754 pounds — roughly the mass of a Harley Davidson Road King — overnight. This tuna, caught off the northern coast of Japan, was estimated to be two decades old, according to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). Given the fact that the population of northern bluefin has plummeted some 90% since the 1970s, there are probably very few of these big old fish still around. The northern bluefin is, in fact, listed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as critically endangered, one step away from being extinct in the wild. So is the southern bluefin, found in waters around Australia, and breeding stocks of eastern Altantic bluefin tuna could, by some estimates, disappear from the Mediterranean as early as 2012.

(Here’s a video I shot about the dwindling tuna catch in the Philippines.)

The fact is, most of the bluefin caught in Japanese waters are not over 750 pounds. They are much smaller, because they are much younger. The fish raised in Japanese tuna ranches and the huge farming business in the Mediterranean (and most of that meat goes to Japan too) are caught as juveniles and and raised to a sell-able weight in offshore pens. Bluefin is only being bred and raised in captivity on a very limited scale. That means that the numbers of young fish in the wild are being severely depleted, and the chance for fish to become old enough to procreate and repopulate the ocean — let alone reach a ripe old age worthy of $400,000 — is getting more and more remote.

When this fish actually makes it to plate, will sushi-lovers in Hong Kong and Tokyo know they are sitting down to a meal worthy of the kind of elite endangered dining club featured in the 1990 film The Freshman? Doubtful. Which is why figuring out where your tuna comes from is really the only choice for anyone who doesn’t want to play an active role in extinction can make right now.

Check out the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s guide to eating sustainable sushi here.