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Japan's Sacred Bluefin, Loved Too Much

Across Japan, quotas are squeezing the supply of sashimi tuna, and soaring prices are reducing demand. In the first quarter of this year, imports fell 24 percent compared with the previous year, according to one recent industry report. Another report says that for all of 2006, household consumption of sashimi tuna fell 20 percent.

Yet as the Japanese eat less sashimi-grade tuna, Americans, Europeans and Chinese are eating more. In the United States, the second-largest market for fresh tuna, imports have continued to rise this year. That, in turn, is driving up demand and prices. It is also putting further pressure on tuna stocks that have been overfished for decades.

In addition to their high value, bluefin tuna are capable of remarkable speed -- some have been clocked swimming at 43 miles an hour. Six years ago, one especially nice bluefin sold at Tsukiji market for $173,600, because of its size, quality and, it is said, a fierce bidding war.

At a recent Monday morning auction, Iida bought a very average bluefin, weighing 341 pounds, for $9,500. "The price was higher than the quality of the fish justified," he grumbled.

Since 1950, the global catch has risen more than tenfold, to more than 4 million tons in 2002, '03 and '04. A report this year by the World Wildlife Fund said that the tuna fishing fleet is now far larger -- in some cases 70 percent larger -- than is needed for a sustainable catch.

The consequences have been severe, especially for bluefin tuna. The total population of southern bluefin has been reduced to about 8 percent of levels before industrial fishing took off in the 1950s, according to a U.N. report.

Japan admitted last year that its fleet had caught one-third more southern bluefin tuna than it was entitled to under an international quota.

"We have to change our appetites to protect these fish," Iida said, as he stabbed out a cigarette and stomped off at 4:30 a.m. in his rubber boots to inspect fresh and frozen tuna laid out on wooden pallets in two auction rooms.

Last year, before the quotas were cut, so many tuna carcasses were wheeled out to the auction floor that they had to be stacked on top of each other.

Those days, Iida said, are gone forever. "We were too loose in governing our own fishing," he said. "We now need a very rigid regimen to show the world that we can control ourselves. Instead of eating tuna twice a week, the Japanese are going to have to settle for twice a month."

Iida, though, still has to find a way to deliver a ton and a half of tuna a day (worth about $180,000 at recent auction prices) to customers who have relied on his company for decades. Those customers include some of Tokyo's best sushi restaurants.

To deliver the goods, Iida buys as many quality tuna as he can get, if the day's auction serves them up. If not, he relies more than ever on his big freezer. Tuna frozen with special "flash" methods can be kept for up to a year with little or no perceptible change in its taste.

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