Japan's Sacred Bluefin, Loved Too Much

By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, November 11, 2007

TOKYO -- "Tuna cannot look like skinny Japanese women."

So says Tsunenori Iida, and he ought to know. His family has been buying and selling tuna for seven generations here at the world's largest fish market. Six mornings a week for 43 years, Iida has been casting his eyes and running his fingers over the torpedo-shaped carcasses of bluefin tuna, the most precious fish in the sea. They are brought here to Tokyo's Tsukiji market, where a dawn auction sets the global price.

"I look for beauty and balanced plumpness," Iida said. "I am looking for a Catherine Zeta-Jones type of tuna."

Alas for Japan, which wolfs down a quarter of the global tuna catch, and for the rest of the world: An increasingly voracious appetite for sushi is driving the supply of plump pulchritude served raw perilously low.

Japan -- after years of overfishing a species that is as much sacrament as food -- is feeling the pinch more than any other country.

As of this year and for the next four years, the country's annual fishing quota has been slashed in half for southern bluefin tuna, found in the warm waters of the Southern Hemisphere. And its quota for Atlantic bluefin has been cut by almost a quarter.

Bluefin, which have been fished to the brink of extinction in some areas, are the largest tuna. They produce the most succulent sashimi-grade flesh, which is eaten raw either as sushi (together with a dollop of rice) or on its own, as sashimi.

Wholesale tuna prices, up about 20 percent in the past year, are so high that Japanese restaurant owners say they cannot pass on the full cost to customers.

Still, tuna remains on the menus because there is no real choice. Without a sizable slab of rich red flesh on prominent display, a sushi restaurant in this country loses face -- and customers.

"Tuna is the sushi in a sushi restaurant," said Izumi Niitsu, who manages Kihachi, a restaurant in Tokyo. He has been slicing and serving the stuff for 40 years. "If you have good tuna, you have a reputation of being a proper restaurant."

Niitsu now sells his highest grade of tuna (the higher the fat content, the higher the grade) at about $5 for a piece about the size of a matchbox. His wholesale cost for such a piece, he says, is often more than his customers pay.

"When customers order tuna after tuna, my heart sort of pounds," said Niitsu, who tries to cover his tuna losses by gently encouraging customers to enjoy species of raw fish that he sells at a profit.

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