Sushi chefs and fish dealers across the Japanese archipelago were letting out small sighs of relief Thursday night as news filtered in from the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) in Qatar that a proposed export ban on Atlantic bluefin tuna had failed to pass.
Japan consumes around three-quarters of the globe’s bluefin tuna catch, with almost all of it served raw as sushi and sashimi, of which it is the most sought-after variety.
As a result, the proposed ban has been closely watched here, resonating far beyond the sushi bar. While many Japanese acknowledge that waning bluefin tuna stocks are a serious problem – stocks have dropped by about 60 percent in the past 13 years – something of a siege mentality is detectable in views expressed in the media and by ordinary people.
To some, it feels like another round of Japan-bashing when taken in the context of the recent confrontations with the Sea Shepherd antiwhalers, the Oscar victory for the anti-dolphin hunting documentary “The Cove,” and even Toyota’s recent travails.
“I do wonder if it’s only whales and tuna that are in danger of dying out – aren’t there other fish, that Japanese people don’t like to eat, in the same situation?” asks Kaori Fukasawa, the mother of two tuna-loving children. “It’s a bit like Toyota’s recent troubles. Haven’t there been similar problems with Chrysler or other US motor companies? They sometimes seemed to be enjoying the chance to get at a Japanese company.”
Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama praised the rejection of a ban, saying that "I think it was a good decision." The Japanese government and fishing industry have said that sharper enforcement of catch quotas set by the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas is a better approach. Late last year, that body reduced the global quota by 40 percent, to 13,500 tons.
Bluefin too expensive for most consumers
Bluefin accounts only for a small percentage of the tuna that ends up on the end of chopsticks here.The record prices that prime specimens can fetch at Tokyo’s famous Tsukiji fish market grab the headlines – one fish weighing in at 232-kilogram (511.5 lbs.) sold in January for 16.28 million yen ($180,000).
“The imported 'kuro-maguro' [as Atlantic bluefin tuna is known] that’s all over the news now doesn’t even sell well, as it’s too expensive," explains the sushi master from behind the counter of the Ugogashi sushi shop in the affluent Tokyo suburb of Okayama. "I’ve got some in my freezer that’s been there for ages."
He says he was relieved the ban didn't pass. "But in reality, it wouldn’t affect us that much," he says. "There are plenty of other varieties being bred and caught elsewhere. And that’s what most people eat.”
The chef, who says he has been running Ugogashi for five decades, does concede that depleted tuna stocks are a concern. “If we keep overfishing all kinds of tuna, it will become a global problem,” he says. As for farmed fish – it tastes "completely different – though a lot of people don’t notice.”
Blame the sushi on a conveyor belt
One factor contributing to the overconsumption of tuna in general is that it is no longer a luxury; eating it has become much more commonplace at fast food-type sushi shops that deliver dishes via long conveyor belts, where the cheaper varieties are firm favorites with children.
“The spread of kaiten-zushi [revolving sushi] is one reason for the increase in the amount of tuna being eaten,” says Ms. Fukasawa, the mother. “When we had only real sushi shops, it was a delicacy.”
Some Japanese commentators have cited close links between the royal family of Monaco – the tiny principality was the sponsor of the proposed ban – and the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society.
“I don’t know why that tiny country can judge about tuna, for us Japanese, it’s a part of our culture,” says Fukasawa, “Though we know we have to think about what we eat in terms of other animals and fish too, if they’re going to die out.”
The chef at Ugogashi also feels there is an element of hypocrisy about the focus on bluefin, and compares it to the whaling arguments. He suggests the reason the Japanese whaling fleet has to travel into the Southern Ocean every year is, “the Americans took all the whales from around the Japanese coast just to use for oil. They didn’t even eat them.”
Despite professing some concern about overfishing, he also clearly believes the dangers are being exaggerated. “I’ve been running this restaurant for 50 years and have heard the same story plenty of times about tuna running out – but it’s never happened.”