Back in 2013 one 489lb blue fin tuna sold at a Tokyo fish auction for a record $1.76m; approximately $3600 per pound. The buyer owned a chain of high end sushi restaurants in Japan and said at the time that he would be selling the fish at a loss in his restaurants. This action by somebody with way more money than sense was, sadly, yet another nail in the coffin of this humble fish which was once used for cat food. So just how did the blue fin become a million dollar fish which is now teetering on the verge of extinction?
Let’s take a trip back to the 1960’s. Nobody wanted blue fin back then and in the US it sold for pennies a pound. It was a popular catch for recreational fishermen who would either throw it away or feed their cats with it. This was the main use for blue fin back then and few people liked its fatty, bloody meat. The global explosion of the sushi restaurant gave Americans the chance to develop a taste for the toro; the prime meat from the blue fins belly.
By the 1970’s the Japanese had also realized how good blue fin was for sushi and suddenly it rose through the ranks to become the most sought after fish. It wasn’t only the Japanese fisherman who were taking to the seas after this prize, it was also those from the US and Canada. According to stats from the International Union for Conservation of Nature, fish for blue fin in the Western Atlantic increase by over 2000% between 1970-1990.
The average price an Atlantic fisherman could command for a blue fin they exported to Japan shot up by 10,000%. Blue fin fishing in the Mediterranean exploded during the 90’s as everyone wanted to climb aboard this gravy train. The migratory habits were pin pointed to give fishermen the best chance of catching the biggest fish and purse seine fishing first appeared. It has been a downward spiral ever since.
The blue fin, with its juicy red flesh, is now one of the most prized foodstuffs in the world among gastronomes and an esteemed member of the most exclusive sushi clubs. The over fishing of blue fin in the Mediterranean has been pinpointed as the main cause of the drastic decline in numbers. The Atlantic blue fin migrates here between April and June to spawn and it is these fish which are regarded as the catch worth the biggest prize. As the legal amount of blue fin allowed to be fished has plummeted the illegal, or pirate, fisherman have come into their own and within a 6 week period can deplete the Med of 40% of these fish.
The limits imposed on the fishing of blue fin has fallen on very deaf ears. The purse seine method of fishing, which uses a long wall of net, is capable of capturing whole schools at a time and is the most detrimental fishing method used today. With so many blue fins being caught there are invariably smaller fish among them which won’t bring the big bucks at the fish auctions. These are taken to one of the many illegal ‘tuna fattening ranches’ peppered around the Mediterranean coastline where they are kept until they are big enough to raise a hefty price then exported mainly to Japan.
This method prevents these smaller tuna from growing and spawning as nature intended, effectively breaking the circle of life. The lack of spawning and the callous over fishing of the fish which are there have combined to bring the blue fin numbers to the critical point they are at today. Older, traditional methods of fishing wouldn’t have brought about this crisis, but the fact that they don’t yield enough dollars for the greedy pirates has seen the advent of the purse seine.
One of these methods is known as mattanza. Used by fishermen around Sardinia and Sicily for centuries, this method employs a network of dense nets, known as Isola or Island and the quasi-spiritual procedure to capture the blue fin is the mattanza. The fish are brought to surface through these nets, each one smaller than the last, until they reach the surface. The fish are then captured in a trap system using spears to kill them, giving rise to the final net being known as the death trap.
This still takes place in May and June as the biggest fish pass the coast as they head south. The last few mattanza in existence in Sicily take place among the Egadi Islands off the west coast. While the name comes from the Spanish word matar, which means “to kill” many terms involved in the process are of Arabic origin. The rais, who is the mattanza head fisherman, is one such term which dates back to the 9th century when the technique first found popularity during the Arab domination of Sicily. How much longer this tradition will continue is anyone’s guess.
So what is being done to stop this decline and prevent the blue fin from becoming extinct? Various environmental organizations such as Greenpeace and the WWF are trying their best but as long as these pirate fishermen continue to operate the decline will continue. All three of the species of blue fin are being chronically over fished, and many attempts over the years to protect the blue fin have been thwarted by the illegal fishing taking place in Japan, the US, New Zealand and the Mediterranean countries.
Every first Saturday in January a grand announcement is made in Japan which puts a price on the head of one blue fin tuna caught. The global fishing community await this announcement then plan their attack, as do the pirates. After the exorbitant price stated in January 2013, which led to the aforementioned million dollar tuna, fishermen across the globe waited with baited breath for what was to come in January 2014.
What they weren’t expecting was the price to plummet from close to $2m only 12 months earlier to a mere $70,000. This is still a hefty price for one fish but the massive difference caused quite a stir. While some optimists claimed this was Japan’s way of trying to help the crisis the general consensus was that it would have the opposite effect. Now even more tuna would have to be caught to allow the avaricious fishermen to reach their financial targets. The death just got even louder.