Plummeting Price of the Bluefin Tuna – What Does This Mean for the Plight of the World’s Most Expensive Fish?

Living wild species are like a library of books still unread. Our heedless destruction of them is akin to burning the library without ever having read its books. John Dingell

In January of last year, the global fishing community witnessed the rise of the Pacific bluefin tuna to the status of the most expensive fish in the world. The hefty $1.76 million reverberated in news headlines across the world, shocking regulators and horrifying environmentalists. It was a hard blow for the critically endangered fish, making it far more desirable both on the end of a hook for fishermen and on a plate as sashimi. The bid this year once again brought us astonishing news – this time that the price of the first bluefin plummeted down to a mere $70,000. Conservationists are attempting to understand what this means for the future of the bluefin. Is it good or bad news?

A famed fish market

It is an honorable Japanese tradition at the famous Tsukiji fish market in Japan for bidding wars to determine the fate of first fish of the year. Last year, the winning bidder was Kiyoshi Kimura, the owner of a Japanese sushi restaurant chain. This honor is certainly not for profit – the fish bought last year was served to customers at a massive loss. Rather, it displays status and an achievement of good luck for the winning business. If you can afford the first fish, your territory is marked and you show your competitors that you have the bankroll to push them out. There is also the perk of free advertising, as bluefin sashimi lovers will flock to the triumphant restaurant to taste a bite of the most expensive fish in the world.

However, the fact that one fish can sell for $1.7 million is terribly foreboding for the future of bluefin tuna. It says that we are willing to pay an exorbitant amount for a rare fish. It increases the drive to hunt the bluefin down and literally makes them too valuable to be alive – the fisherman who would catch the last bluefin in the world would indeed become a very rich man.

The price plummets

This year we were poised to see what the price would be. What value would we be putting on our endangered sashimi now –$2 million? $3 million?? All eyes were on the bidding war and the answer astonished us once again. Kimura – the same man who paid $1.7 mllion for a 493 pound Pacific bluefin last year – paid an almost humble $70,000 for a 507 pound fish this year. This is still more expensive than most bluefin go for in Japan, but it is a mere shadow of last year’s first fish.

What does this mean? It’s hard to say for certain, but the theories are abounding.

  • Theory 1 – Japan has finally recognized the plight of the bluefin. People are beginning to understand the fact that Pacific bluefin are only at 4% of their historic numbers and will soon be completely extinguished unless something is done. By lowering the value of the fish, perhaps not so many fishermen will be prompted to spend their time hunting them. The demand for their meat will go down – but the honor and good luck the first fish brings is still assured.
  • Theory 2 – There was simply too much backlash from the environmental community for there to be much competition in the bidding wars. Conservationists want the majestic bluefin to stick around for our kids to enjoy. Sashimi lovers want to continue enjoying it for years to come. A price tag of $1.7 million is quite ridiculous when you consider the fact that the desired species is, in fact, critically endangered.
  • Theory 3 – Bidders have simply walked away. The first fish is thought to be a lucky charm for business, and ownership of the highest quality tuna would bring many consumers to their doorsteps. But last year’s auction was perhaps nothing more than a bidding war just for the sake of high prices. Maybe other bidders are fed up with excessive inflation and decided not to partake.
  • Theory 4 – Perhaps more bluefin tuna were available. There was a marked influx of bluefin from Oma, a northern Japanese city. The rising prices we’ve seen over the last few years were due to the rarity of the fish. The fewer there are, the more bidders are willing to pay for them. So the opposite must hold true as well. It’s important to keep in mind that this does not mean that there are more bluefin in our oceans. It more likely means that there was a higher number of fishermen catching them, attempting to wrangle in the next $2 million fish.

Although we would like to believe that theory 1 prevails, it is likely that 3 or 4 bear the truth. Whatever the reason behind the dramatic drop in price, we can hope that it is good for the future of bluefin tuna. Perhaps now the greed has lessened and fewer fishermen will hunt these rare great giants, allowing them time to recover.

Break the habit

Humans have a terrible way of making overconsumption a habit. It is our responsibility to treat nature with respect, garnishing it’s bounty without taking too much. That has proved to be difficult for us, even though it should not be. Let’s keep our most loved species around for generations to enjoy.We love our seafood – let’s love the oceans as well. Choose wisely, choose sustainably, choose Pucci Foods.

4 Replies to “Plummeting Price of the Bluefin Tuna – What Does This Mean for the Plight of the World’s Most Expensive Fish?”

  1. Jeffrey C

    I trade in the markets, and the fish auction charts looks like any other bubble’s blow-off top. (Ever heard of Tulipmania?) Everything is cyclical. The price rises into a mania, which clearly peaked in 2013. Then there’s a phase transition and the emotions change. It moved from a bull market to a bear market.

    • Rietta

      Hi Jeffrey! You are absolutely right, everything is cyclical. This is just an interesting example because it is only one man buying one fish once a year – rather than many people buying lots of one product over an undefined period of time. Perhaps it is simply the same basic concept on a different scale. I am curious about what it means for the bluefin – whether it will lose it’s status in the markets as such a valuable fish, leading to lower fishing rates and (hopefully) a rising population, or whether this was just a hiccup along the way to a further decline as consumption rates continue with little or no change. Thanks for reading, I appreciate your insight!

  2. John

    There are probably a combination of several reasons for the recent drop in the pricing of these fish. In my personal opinion it probably has to do with the backlash from environmentalists on the dwindling numbers of this species, which has now turned what was once great PR for the highest bidder into extremely negative PR, for the same reasons. A second factor that wasn’t mentioned could easily be the global economy and the downward spiral it has been in. While I understand that the rich are still rich, there is probably more of a connotation of the frivolous waste of money that this is. Combine that with reason number one and you are spelling disaster for the pricing of these fish. In the long run though, this probably benefits this species but will quite possibly just pass the burden to another.

  3. Lisa

    I wonder if the reason for the decline could have anything to do with the concern of the Nuclear accident in Japan. I recently read a study that all the tuna has a much higher rate of toxicity because of it. I also think an idea takes awhile to catch on and over fishing has been talked about for a while but it takes time to trickle down into the market and show itself. I personally don’t like sushi, but I do like tuna, it is a shame that food that is very healthy for you, has been put on limits not for over fishing but for it not be good for you if you eat to much because of what they absorb from the waters. This was an interesting article

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