Top Story: Enigma on rice

Originally published in Seafood Business Magazine

Bluefin tuna decisions must weigh mysteries of the past, present and future

Toward the end of the 2011 documentary “Jiro Dreams of Sushi,” the chefs at Tokyo’s renowned sushi restaurant Sukiyabashi Jiro discuss the future of the oceans that supply their colorful and coveted bite-sized creations. With a furrowed brow, Yoshikazu Ono, son of the legendary Jiro Ono, is particularly concerned about bluefin tuna, known in Japan as honmaguro. The quintessential sushi morsel, o-toro (fatty tuna), comes from the belly of the bluefin.

“When we were kids, sushi was too expensive to eat regularly. Now they have sushi on conveyor belts and in convenience stores. Sushi is available everywhere, which has caused a shortage of fish,” says a visibly conflicted Ono, mindful of the delicate balance now required of his profession. “The problem is overfishing. The tuna stocks are declining each year … Without fish, we can’t do business. However that doesn’t mean they should catch all fish to the brink of extinction. For posterity we must be conscious of this issue.”

For the many critics of Japan’s booming sushi industry — the genesis of a culinary phenomenon that’s spread across the globe — the chef’s apprehensions may come as a surprise. That’s partly because some view bluefin tuna (Thunnus thynnus) as a spectacle of extravagance and a cultural symbol of prosperity in Japan, where an estimated 80 percent of the global bluefin tuna supply is consumed. And yet every seafood-buying guide available says to avoid it.

Widely contrasting beliefs about the fish’s abundance arguably make bluefin tuna the linchpin species in the ongoing seafood sustainability conversation, even though in terms of volume sold it comes nowhere near other popular seafood species like salmon, shrimp or whitefish. In the Mediterranean Sea, home to the world’s largest bluefin population, the species comprises only 3 percent of all fish landings by volume, according to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization. Its economic importance, says FAO, is “disproportionately high.”

Demand remains strong because bluefin unquestionably belongs among the handful of fish species considered the most delicious. It has become the ultimate status symbol in the hyper-competitive sushi market in Japan, where restaurants are often judged foremost by the quality of their fatty tuna. Last January, Kiyoshi Kimura, owner of chain restaurant Sushi-Zanmai, forked out a reported 32.49 million yen, or $736,000, for a single pristine fish, saying he wanted to “liven up Japan” after the previous year’s tsunami. Similarly outrageous sums have been paid for top-quality bluefin, usually a publicity stunt to kick off a new year.

Marketing ploy or no, those artificially inflated prices could one day be the going rate, say some environmental organizations, claiming the species could disappear if fishing practices aren’t changed. Groups like the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), Oceana and Pew Charitable Trusts, among others, say there aren’t enough of the long-living, highly migratory fish in the oceans to meet demand. They have long blamed the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) for failing to protect the fish with strict quotas and by not enforcing regulations to stop illegal fishing. Others scoff at suggestions of potential bluefin extinction, saying there are plenty of fish — legal fish — out there.

A chef’s choice

It’s no crime to have bluefin tuna on your menu, but to some it might as well be: “End of the Line” author Charles Clover has repeatedly pummeled Nobu, a global sushi restaurant chain co-owned by prominent chef Nobu Matsuhisa, actor Robert DeNiro and others, for continuing to serve the fish. The restaurant eventually added a disclaimer on its menu saying that bluefin was a threatened species, but continued to serve it, giving its detractors further ammunition.

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) lists the fish as “endangered” on its Red List of Threatened Species, but also concedes an element of mystery: “Although the bluefin tuna has more data collected on it than most other fish species, uncertainties in the data make much of it unreliable,” reads IUCN’s official position. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species does not list the species as endangered, despite desperate pleas from the aforementioned environmental groups for stricter trade protections.

Encouraging signs have emerged, but interpretations of those signs vary. Despite stock assessments and reports from the water giving hope of recovery, the environmental community in November applauded when ICCAT denied higher quotas to government parties pushing for them at the organization’s annual meeting in Agadir, Morocco. On the flip side, fishermen in North America say their artisanal hook-and-line fishery is not to blame for the species’ alleged demise on the other side of the Atlantic, and argue that they deserve to take more fish than they’re allowed.

As fishing continues, bluefin tuna has become the proverbial line in the sand. It begs the question: Does the fate of this fish rest solely in the hands of chefs like Jiro and Nobu? Paul Greenberg (see SFB March ’12), author of the New York Times bestseller “Four Fish,” says “yes.”

“The chef is the gatekeeper to a very lucrative public market and he or she needs to take that responsibility seriously,” he says. “It’s the chef, not the consumer, who has the interaction with the purveyor. It’s the chef who can ask the tougher questions about sourcing that the customer doesn’t necessarily understand. Moreover, chefs possess great symbolic power. What they put on their menus will be replicated in home kitchens and so they need to think about the ramifications of their choices.”

Chef Eric Ripert could be considered the Jiro Ono of America, even though he was born in Antibes, France. His seafood restaurant in New York, Le Bernardin, is a gastronomical mecca, the Sistine Chapel of seafood. Ripert has been at the helm for nearly two decades.

Ripert’s exacting standards are known among seafood suppliers, especially those who have earned his business; selling to Le Bernardin is a point of pride. In this way, he is very much like Jiro. But unlike the 85-year-old raw bar maestro, Ripert took bluefin tuna off his menu a couple of years ago. While he admits that world-class tuna isn’t the necessary menu component for Le Bernardin that it is for a sushi restaurant in Tokyo, grappling over what fish to serve and what not to serve is nothing new to him.

“Twenty years ago, chefs were saying they’d lose clients if they took Chilean sea bass [off the menu],” says Ripert. “I was like, ‘That’s bull----, that’s not true.’ I don’t believe we’ll lose a client because we don’t have a fish on the menu. I would go to Jiro even if he didn’t have bluefin tuna. Jiro only serves 12 clients a day, it’s not him destroying the population.”

While neither bluefin tuna nor Chilean sea bass is on Ripert’s menu, another species surrounded with uncertainty is: monkfish, a bottom-dwelling species typically harvested by trawlers in the North Atlantic. Ripert pays attention to guides like Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch, which has the species on its “red” or “avoid” list, but he relies on the knowledge that he and his staff have acquired through the years as the final judgment.

“If you say monkfish is endangered, I won’t believe it. I still see the big ones; I buy them still,” he says. The source of information he trusts the most is the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). NOAA’s Fish Watch website ( has detailed information about dozens of commercially important species. Ripert knows he is a liaison to the general public and relishes that responsibility.

“Even as a simple citizen of this planet, I feel I’m responsible to leave it in a better place than when I came. I don’t want my son in 20 years to know that bluefin tuna was amazing but impossible to find. I’m very conscious of that,” he says. “I use my influence to inspire people to do more to protect our planet and take good care of it. But we are all part of the problem. We are consumers.”

Road to recovery?

Demand for bluefin is “insatiable,” says Robert Kliss, president of tuna supplier North Atlantic Traders in Lynn, Mass. He’s been in the bluefin trade for 25 years, moving about 1 million pounds of bluefin annually. Whole fish prices sold to Japan can climb to $25 a pound for the best specimens, a price that U.S. buyers typically can’t touch. About 80 percent of the bluefin tuna he sources from around the world is sold to buyers in Japan, and most of his domestic sales are to Japanese restaurants.

In the last four years, Kliss has seen a remarkable turnaround in the global bluefin tuna trade, saying it has “absolutely” been cleaned up now that ICCAT’s enforcement efforts have improved. “Without correct ICCAT documents, the value of [an undocumented fish] is basically worthless.”

Prior to 2009, however, the Mediterranean was essentially the Wild West. Landings were “seriously under-reported between the mid-1990s through 2007,” according to an optimistic October ICCAT statistics committee report.

“There was no enforcement. Zero. You could do whatever you wanted, ship them anywhere, create any document to satisfy any country; the quotas meant nothing,” Kliss says. He recalls a conversation with an Italian purse-seine fisherman in 2006, who now works for ICCAT.

“Landings were documented at more than 30,000 [metric] tons. But he figured it was actually well over 100,000. And that was just Italy. That’s like 50 years of our (U.S.) quota in one year. [Cleaning that up] is why the fishery was saved.”

Times are certainly better for bluefin now, but has the fishery been saved? 2013 Atlantic bluefin tuna quotas will be slightly higher than the previous three years. The 13,500-metric-ton (MT) total is up from just 12,900 MT, but the new limit pleased environmental groups that follow fisheries decisions closely. Amanda Nickson, global tuna conservation director for the Pew Environment Group, was encouraged that ICCAT didn’t overreact to the October report that she said showed a “possibility, maybe, of a glimmer of hope” for the stock’s recovery. As the meeting wore on, she was concerned that proposals for higher quotas might sway the decision; they didn’t.

In the Western Atlantic, the quota was held to just 1,750 MT, a total shared between Canada and the United States. According to Nickson, delegates from Canada proposed a 2,000-MT quota but were denied.

“It was a good week for Atlantic bluefin tuna,” Nickson said in November once the meeting concluded. “What we hope is that this is the beginning of a brave new future. It’s proof that ICCAT has maintained its commitment to scientific advice, a great departure from pre-2009.”

Rich Ruais, the executive director of the American Bluefin Tuna Association, was “frustrated” when he left Morocco. He says the U.S. government blocked a “modest reward” for fishermen on this side of the pond, who have been “exceptionally compliant with all bluefin tuna regulations since 1981.” NOAA Administrator Dr. Jane Lubchenco did not allow for flexibility in the U.S. position, he says, adding that the blame for any damage done to global bluefin tuna stocks should not be laid at the feet of U.S. or Canadian fishermen.

“When industrial fishing runs wild it’s a problem for all of us,” says Ruais, referring to the use of purse seiners, spotter planes and tuna-fattening “ranches” in the Mediterranean, a practice that began in the late 1990s. “We all get reduced proportionately and if it’s not our fault, our guys get angry.”

Linda Greenlaw, a well-known Maine swordfish fishermen and author of several books, including “All Fishermen Are Liars,” targeted bluefin in 2011 for the first time.

“I saw acres of fish last year, with fish breaking the water all over the place and I heard stories from all up and down the coast, the same thing, a lot of fish around,” she says. “We’re fishing with rods and reels. Or harpoons. I have a problem with purse-seining them and catching everything in the path, things you don’t want to do. I’m dangling three to five hooks in the water hoping to catch a fish.”

Like no other

And what a fish it is. The biggest bluefin tuna ever landed tipped the scales at more than 2,000 pounds. In November, an angler who lives in Ghana caught a 1,000-pound fish off the coast of Nova Scotia — proof that true giants still roam the seas. Bluefins can swim up to 45 mph in short bursts, according to NOAA, and traverse entire oceans. They are majestic creatures, near the very top of the marine food web.

“They have no real predators, except for us,” says Kliss of North Atlantic Traders.

Its role in the ecosystem as an apex predator is essential; its regard in culinary circles borders on mythology. It’s more than a just a fish — it’s a reminder of what our responsibilities are as human beings and our roles on the planet. We participate with our wallets and our forks (or chopsticks).

Just how important is bluefin tuna? Let the last words belong to the master himself.

“Until the end, I only want to work with the best fish. When we have good tuna, I feel great,” says Jiro Ono, in a private moment during the documentary that brought him worldwide fame. “If you have a sushi restaurant you’ll have to find substitutes for certain types of fish. But is there a substitute for tuna? I don’t think so.”

Email Senior Editor James Wright at [email protected]


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