The Problem With Being Popular on the Plate

Powerful, elegant, and delicious, bluefin tuna are truly one of the marvels of the ocean.

Unlike most fish, bluefin tuna are able to regulate their internal temperature. This allows them to have superior vision, dive deeply, swim at high speeds, and cover vast distances with incredible navigational ability. They have colonized every ocean on the planet making them one of the world’s most valuable and commercially exploited fish species across the globe.

Black Diamonds on the Menu

According to the 2018 assessment by the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission, the bluefin tuna population has declined significantly to a mere 3.3 percent of its historic size. Decades of overfishing continue to deplete most stocks and boost market prices, with demand driven primarily by the growing global popularity of sushi.

In the culinary world, bluefin tuna (known as maguro in Japanese) is regarded as the “black diamond” of sushi due to its unique buttery flavour, beautifully marbled texture, and unfortunate scarcity. 80 percent of all bluefin tuna caught ends up in Japan, and they can fetch prices in the millions, as recently demonstrated at the world’s largest wholesale fish and seafood market, Toyosu Market in Tokyo, where a buyer paid $3.1M for a single fish.

Despite global conservation efforts, chefs remain beholden to those customers willing to spend top dollar for a taste. The allure of bluefin tuna belly, or toro, is particularly strong for sushi aficionados, making it a coveted, yet unsustainable menu item. The economics of its market encourage continued fishing, pushing us closer and closer to species extinction.

Confusion and Bluefin Market Concerns

Confusion regarding sustainability has also come up in the chef community as there have been many claims of “sustainable options” for bluefin tuna.

Some have argued that catching one bluefin from the western Atlantic at a time is sustainable, but this is only true when a fishery stock is healthy. While there are claims of observed growth in western Atlantic bluefin stocks, scientists have confirmed that the growth in numbers is attributed to the mixing of the eastern and western bluefin tuna populations due to warming waters.

“While bluefin stocks are improving, they are not fully recovered and there is a lot of conservation work that needs to be done and strong management measures kept in place to allow stocks to recover," said Shana Miller, senior officer for International Fisheries Conservation at the Ocean Foundation.
 
Many in the bluefin debate have also looked to tuna ranching as a solution to the challenges facing the wild fishery. Tuna ranching involves capturing bluefin tuna as juveniles and, in some cases, towing them in cages for hundreds of miles to pens where they are then fattened with raw sardines or other fish. By the time they are ready for market, as much as 30 pounds of sardines will have been used to produce a single pound of bluefin tuna. In short, bluefin ranching takes juveniles out of an already threatened fishery, places additional stress on the species, and incurs a significant carbon cost.

However, bluefin tuna juveniles have been produced in hatcheries and recent reports have shown that there is potential to scale this method. But the problem of high feed use remains a longer-term challenge, as it will require the use of pelleted feeds that incorporate sustainable ingredients that are currently still being developed.

A bluefin tuna auction at the Tsukiji Market (photo: Asian Seafood Improvement Collaborative)

A bluefin tuna auction at the Tsukiji Market (photo: Asian Seafood Improvement Collaborative)

Get Creative with Bluefin Alternatives

The James Beard Smart Catch program, built on the ratings of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch program, seeks to educate chefs about sustainable seafood and help them make alternative seafood choices.

People need to realize that eating bluefin tuna is equivalent to eating panda, because that is how magnificent they are as a species. Bluefin is not an item that we want to put on our menus because we want to make sure that we are making great choices for our environment and also for our communities,” said chef William Dissen, a Seafood Watch Blue Ribbon Task Force member and Smart Catch Leader.

Chefs such as Jay Huang are finding ways to be more innovative in their menu offerings. As the executive chef for Lucky Robot Japanese Kitchen, the first sustainable sushi restaurant in Texas, Huang has to balance consumer expectation with the restaurant’s sustainability goals.

“As a sushi restaurant, customers expect to see o-toro on the menu. We’ve chosen to never serve bluefin at Lucky Robot, and so we had to be creative to offer an alternative,” he explained. “We created a piece called chiki toro or “fake” toro, with chiki coming from the Japanese word, “inchiki,” meaning fake. We take big-eye tuna from Hawaiian waters and pair it with a thin slice of lardo that has been cured in-house with salt and Peruvian aji peppers, and then lightly torched to release the oils. This combination transforms the lean big-eye into a buttery, decadent bite.”    
 
In summary, the bottom line is that there is no such thing as sustainable bluefin tuna from any source at this point in time, and our unquenchable desire for this product keeps unsustainable pressure on wild bluefin populations. Farming bluefin tuna in limited quantities with hatchery-reared juveniles and pelleted feeds that are produced with sustainable feed ingredients could be a choice in the future; however, the timeline to realize that vision is not on the immediate horizon. In the meantime, there are a number of Smart Catch–approved tuna alternatives available, such as Beard Foundation sustainable seafood partner Fairtrade Yellowfin tuna from Indonesia, Albacore tuna belly, or other well-managed species such as Pacific Yellowfin (ahi) that consumers can support and feel good about.

Learn more about Seafood Watch recommendations for buying and eating tuna.

If you have questions or would like support in finding new species for your menu, don’t hesitate to reach out to the Smart Catch team at smartcatch@jamesbeard.org.

Laura PeetComment