The Bluefin Battle

I got into an, ironically, heated argument with my sushi chef on Sunday.

Ironic for the following reasons: we usually get along smashingly (he came to my wedding, even), we weren’t even eating sushi or at his restaurant (we were having a BBQ in a park),  sushi is never heated (lame joke, I know).

Allow me to backtrack and say that I have relatively avoided Bluefin Tune (maguro or toro, for the sushi inclined) for about one and a half years. Meaning, I haven’t willingly ordered it, but have eaten it when it is part of a set, or if it has been gifted to me.

For the past three months, however, I have made a more conscious effort to avoid its consumption: if it is in a sushi set, I give it to my wife; if it is given to me as a present, I let my wife go to town on it.

The reason being that I can no longer accept myself as a willing participant of the bluefin’s demise. That being said, I believe that everyone must make up their own mind about this kind of issue.

The battle began at the above mentioned BBQ when I asked him if fish slices could be substituted in his sushi set. He said no problem, and asked why. I told him how I want to avoid maguro, and would like to substitute salmon instead. Here is where the battle began, and he started in on me about why I would want to give up bluefin tuna.

Because research states that bluefin numbers are dwindling quickly; because the fish will be effectively extinct in 25 to 50 years if things don’t change; because about 80% of the catch is consumed in Japan. Whatever I can do to help is what I want to do to help, regardless if I am alone or not.  Therefore, I’ll take salmon, please.

Well here he lost it. “And if everyone ate salmon the salmon would be extinct!!” he said.

I understand his statement, but disagree with the result. First off, everyone is not going to eat salmon. Secondly, salmon is easily farmed, and most salmon we eat is from these farms; bluefin tuna cannot be farmed. Thirdly, but not lastly, IF salmon were to be the fish of sushi choice, and its existence were to  be in question, than surely bluefin tuna would in abundance, and I would switch back.

There was more to the debate but, suffice it to say, I chalk his resistance up to a couple of factors. First, maguro has become such a part of the Japanese mainstream diet that it is shocking to think that someone would willingly give it up (an offside: I was watching a news program on this issue and a few randomly interviewed Japanese people said something to the effect of… “It is part of the Japanese diet. The low numbers can’t be helped. If it becomes extinct than we will have to find something else, but until then I will eat it.”)

The second factor is the most important, I think. The mere fact that bluefin tuna can’t be farmed, is difficult to catch, and is nearing extinction, is the exact reason that its price is so high. This basic incentive (ie. the highest priced fish on the menu)  is the reason that he would, as a business owner, be abject to someone avoiding its consumption.

For him, the short-term economics are simple: the more people who order highly priced fish, the better. In the long-term, however, if the bluefin tuna is no longer around, there will be nothing to sell at such a high price.

Maybe the sushi industry needs a lobbyist… one that argues for sanctions, allowing high prices, for a longer time.


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