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Tuesday, January 7, 2014

No More Big Ka-Tuna

Whether the thrill is gone or the bi-polar cycle is now depressed, there was a sense of normality at Tokyo's Tsukiji fish market on Sunday, January 5, 2014.

For the past two years - 2013 and 2012 - tuna prices have been going through the roof - perhaps aided by reports of dwindling stock.

But this year - 2014 - sushi restaurant owner Kimura Kiyoshi (surname first) paid only... hang-on... "only" ¥7.36 million (~US/Cdn $70,728) for a 230-kilogram (507.06 lb) bluefin tuna at the market's much celebrated first auction of the year. That's ¥32,000/kg (~US/Cdn $139.49/lb)

If that seems like a lot, just note that it is still only... hang-on... "only" five per cent of what he paid in 2013, when he shelled out ¥154.4 million (~US/Cdn $1.484 million) for a 222 kg (489.43 lb) bluefin tuna. That was the new record for a fish.

It works out to ¥695,495 per kilogram and for you metric-challenged folks, that equals ~US/Cdn $1,421.03 a pound.

In 2012's first January auction, the very same Kimura-san first went crazy and bid (and paid) ¥56.4 million (then ~US/Cdn $736,000)... for a 269 kg blue fin. This works out to be about $1,241 per pound or ¥209,665.43 per kg.

Is it all about ego and being the one with his name in the media around the world, or does Kimura just want the best fish?

Evidence would suggest it is the former, as the biggest fish may not be the one with the highest quality meat.

But... despite Kimura's outrageous price(s) paid, once has to realize that he didn't just start the bidding up at those amazing prices... he was pushed that high by others.

"I’m glad that the congratulatory price for this year’s bid went back to being reasonable," explains Kimura, who owns Kiyomura Co. which operates the popular Sushi-Zanmai restaurant chain.

Actually, Kimura is a decent enough guy whose brain may not match his wallet. Back in 2012 Kimura said that the reason he paid so much (¥56.4 million) for the tuna was because he wanted to provide a morale boost to the people of Japan after the March 2011 earthquake, tsunami et al.

At that time Kimura told Jiji Press: "I wanted people in Japan, not those abroad, to eat the number-one tuna."

Fair enough. National pride and all that... but dammit Kimura... what about those affected by the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear displacement? What should they do? They lost their home, job, family... should we let them eat fish cake?

Like I said... seems like a nice enough guy, but the money he spend on the fish could have been donated to the victims/Red Cross. Of course... I'm speaking out of line here... I have NO idea about the man's generosity! Kimura may have donated plenty of money and food to those in need. I'm not saying he did... but he might have.
Photograph by John Anderson, National Geographic
The silvery magnificence of Atlantic bluefin tuna (Thunnus thynnus) swims past a diver in Japan's Tokyo Sea Life Park. The fish's belly meat is prized as the finest sushi in the world; one fish can easily sell for tens of thousands of dollars on the world market. Its meat is in such demand that overfishing—some illegal—leaves the giant bluefin population at risk of collapse.
Now... why did the prices for bluefin tuna drop when it appears as though their is a dwindling supply of live bluefin tuna left in the oceans?

Is demand dropping along with supply? Probably not. I actually ate a couple of tuna sandwiches while I wrote the above during my lunch. It wasn't bluefin - yellow albacore, actually... and it was white tuna meat... what the Japanese call sea chicken (the Japanese generally only eat the red meat of the tuna - the good stuff), and understand that we stupid gaijin (foreigners) like the garbage part of the fish (the white meat). They hold it with such disdain that white tuna is called sea chicken. Why? If you are old enough to recall this commercial song: What's the best tuna? Chicken of the Sea. Sea Chicken... a brand.

Anyhow... the Japanese still love their red meat tuna... especially the bluefin. The Japanese consume about 80 per cent of all the bluefin tuna caught in the world... so if the fish does ever go extinct, you can lay 80 per cent of the blame on the Japanese.

This is what bluefin tuna looks like as sushi.
Over the past 15 years, the Pacific Bluefin, Southern Bluefin and Atlantic Bluefin (there are three varieties) stock has fallen dramatically. The main cause is overfishing... more and more people are growing to enjoy the taste of the bluefin tuna's red meat.

Apparently the stock of the bluefin plunged by 60 per cent between 1997-2007 thanks to overfishing and lax quotas. And, while there is improvement in recent years, the fish's survival is still teetering.

Of a huge concern is a fact that some 90 per cent of the bluefin tuna caught are those that have not YET reached their reproductive age... that means only 10 per cent of the population gets a chance to breed. I'll leave off a joke here.

Anyhow... Japanese nationalism still rears its head at the Tsukiji fish market... bluefin tuna caught from areas that are NOT Japanese parts of the world, reached decidedly lower prices.

For example, a 189 kg gaijin farmed blue fin tuna sold for ¥662,00 (~US/Cdn $6,400) = ¥3,500/kg. The same size and sort of fish reached ¥4,800/kg.

Okay, okay... it's not really that big a deal. Despite it being a gaijin bluefin tuna... it's a farmed one.

And... if that sounds like stupid thing to say, I can honestly tell you that there is a HUGE difference in taste for farmed fish versus wild, with the wild fish tasting 10x better. I know, I know... at least with farmed fish you can know exactly what the fish has been eating, and thus have a better indication of its health... but dammit... fresh, wild fish tastes soooooo much better than farmed fish... especially if it's been frozen.

So... with Japan's consumption of bluefin tuna meat not showing any signs of slowing... a reduction of bluefin tuna available... and most bizarrely prices for bluefin tuna dropping... does anyone want to take any bets on what the very last bluefin tuna will cost? And when?

I should also point out that fewer bluefin tuna were sold at the Tsukiji fish market this year than last... which may imply that it was more difficult to find the large fish this year. It dos NOT mean that fishermen were fishing within a quota.

Tsukiji, by the way, is Japan’s largest and busiest fish market and has been selling sea critters for over 50 years at the Chuo Ward, Tokyo facility.

Tsukiji trades some 2,000 tons of marine life a day and ¥1.5 billion (~US/Cdn $14.4 million) in business, making it one of the busiest markets in the world.

The Tsukji market will close just before it moves to a new location in the Koto Ward of Tokyo in April 2015. It will then be known as the Toyosu market.

Visit Tsukiji while you can, folks.

Andrew Joseph
PS: Photo at the very top by Shizuo Kambayashi/ AP.
Sushi restauranteur Kimura Kiyoshi poses with a 230-kilogram bluefin tuna he bought at an auction before cutting it at his restaurant near Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo. (Jan. 5, 2014).
PPS: It is my impression that the tuna caught and being shown in the photo is an American one. How else to explain the exploding Japanese sun sticker on the side of the fish? Obviously this tuna shot down a Japanese airplane at some point during the war. Yes. Banzai! Not Bonsai! Bonsai are the tiny trees made by bondage.

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