By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 11, 2009
For years sushi aficionados have reserved their most lavish praise -- and their spare cash -- for bluefin tuna, the fatty, pinkish fish featured at high-end restaurants across the globe. But as wild stocks of the fish have plummeted, ordering bluefin has become as socially unacceptable as consuming the once-ubiquitous Chilean sea bass.
Now, Virginia's Monterey Bay Fish Grotto restaurant has joined a small group of U.S. restaurants selling a bluefin tuna dubbed Kindai, farmed from hatched eggs in Japan as the result of a university laboratory's efforts to ease diners' consciences. Though the product is not fully sustainable, it underscores how fish suppliers and academic innovators are seeking to satisfy consumer demand without wiping out wild populations altogether.
It's no mystery why bluefin tuna has earned such coveted sushi-bar status. Its buttery texture lends itself to raw preparation, and the tuna's inherent meatiness particularly suits Americans' appetites.
This popular appeal -- because of the high demand, a single bluefin can sell for $100,000 or more -- has exacted a serious environmental cost. Among the four bluefin populations worldwide, the number of Mediterranean bluefin has plummeted by more than half since the 1950s, and the Gulf of Mexico population is less than 20 percent of its 1970 size. Continued fishing of bluefin in the Mediterranean and incidental bycatch in the Gulf have raised the prospect that the species could go commercially extinct.
Facing those declines, several years ago some entrepreneurs pioneered tuna "ranching." These fish farmers capture bluefin juveniles and raise them to maturity in net pens before shipping them to market, rather than trolling for them in the open ocean.
But conservationists have decried the practice, which the Ocean Conservancy's aquaculture director George Leonard calls "the least sustainable form of aquaculture on the planet," for an array of reasons. Catching young bluefin to fatten them up for sale doesn't help sustain wild tuna, they say; it just kills off the next generation. Moreover, because anywhere from 10 to 30 pounds of forage fish is needed to produce a single pound of bluefin tuna, the practice ends up depleting wild stocks beyond tuna. And because ranching calls for holding tuna together in massive coastal pens, the resultant fish waste and discarded food alter the ocean's chemical balance.
The Kindai bluefin represent what a handful of researchers say is a third way. Scientists at Japan's Kinki University and Australia's Clean Seas Tuna Ltd., a commercial operation, have produced the Kindai from hatched eggs rather than captured juveniles. Clean Seas, which is consulting with Kinki, has yet to start marketing its fish, but it reported this month that its separate brood stock of bluefin from the Southern Ocean have started spawning.
Many environmentalists have encouraged the efforts, saying they may represent the best chance of staving off the tuna's extinction.
"We can't seem to stop overfishing bluefin, so captive breeding may be our only hope of saving both the species and the market," said Michael Sutton, who directs the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Center for the Future of the Oceans. (The aquarium is not connected with Monterey Bay Fish Grotto, a three-restaurant chain based in Pennsylvania.)
Stanford University marine biologist Barbara Block, who has pioneered satellite tracking and scientific analysis of bluefin tuna in the western Atlantic, said that although she would prefer that restaurant-goers appreciate bluefin for its speed and strength rather than its flavor, "there are people out there, and I'm one of them, who believe there could be a future with sustainable aquaculture for tuna."
But others, including some restaurateurs, said we've yet to reach that point. Cindy Walter, co-owner of the sustainable seafood restaurant Passionfish in Pacific Grove, Calif., said the product could undermine years of public outreach about the species's predicament.
"There has been so much education done, not only by environmentalists, but restaurateurs who have taken bluefin off the menu and explained to customers why," Walter said. For diners, she said, "it becomes very confusing."
In fact, Kindai tuna (whose name comes from a contraction of the university's Japanese name) still has many of the disadvantages of its other farmed counterparts. Trident Marketing Inc. President Nick Sakagami, who distributes the fish to a handful of U.S. restaurants, said Kinki researchers use between 12 and 13 pounds of wild fish to produce a single pound of tuna. And though they are raising hatchlings rather than ranching tuna the traditional way, the scientists still keep the fish in open-ocean pens and must catch a few dozen wild bluefin each year to ensure the population has enough genetic variability.
"Of course Kindai tuna isn't perfect, but I think it's a major step forward," Sakagami said.
John Dober, executive chef at Monterey Bay Fish Grotto in Tysons Corner, said that after conducting his own research he's excited to serve farmed bluefin that meets a higher environmental standard. "We support the efforts of the new generation of aquaculture scientists," Dober wrote in an e-mail, "who have raised the bar from 'farm raised' to 'sustainable.' "
On Friday, Dober and restaurant owner Glenn Hawley went to seafood distributor J.J. McDonnell & Co. in Jessup to pick up the restaurant's first Kindai tuna, flown in fresh from Japan. At only 70 pounds, the three-year-old tuna was a fraction of the size of the largest bluefin, which can top 1,000 pounds. The distributor is charging the restaurant almost $50 a pound wholesale for the tuna, a markup of only a dollar or so a pound compared with the usual 10 to 15 percent, said McDonnell buyer Bobby Mankita.
After a McDonnell worker took off the fish's head and neatly removed long blocks of flesh, Dober started slicing some of the meat from the tuna's collar for tasting. His hands shook. "I've never cut a fish this expensive, and I've never had anybody watch me," he said. He cut the meat into large cubes and tossed it with ponzu, scallions and macadamia nuts for a Hawaiian-style poke, then sliced 1/2 -inch pieces to taste as sashimi.
"The richness is unbelievable," Dober said once he took a bite. Then he held up a slice. "See that glistening? That's the fat."
Dober planned to spend the rest of the day breaking down and preparing the fish for four entrees that would be debuting on the Monterey Bay Fish Grotto dinner menu, where the Kindai is getting its own page. Each entree features eight ounces of the Kindai, seared, grilled or roasted in preparations that include Japanese, French or Greek flavors and accompaniments. The entrees will retail for $49 to $53, more than $10 higher than the next-most-expensive dish on the restaurant's menu, a Hawaiian ahi tuna. "I don't want people to taste this fish and think, 'It's okay,' " Dober said. "I want them to go, 'Wow.' "
He admits he had "sleepless nights" wondering whether diners would order such a thing in the middle of a recession but reported Monday that he had sold almost all 90 portions of the Kindai within a few days. Customers who do try the fish can expect a visit from the chef. "I want them to understand why this is such a big deal to me," Dober said. "On a global scale, we know we're doing the wrong thing by overfishing, but there are people who are asking, 'How can we stop this from being so destructive?' "