Tsukiji Blues

ozoniWilf and I get into a solid argument at least once a day. Usually it’s small stuff, like who cooks most or does the laundry more often. These typically result in one of us giving in, sitting on the couch pouting for 10-15 minutes, and then forgetting it ever happened…until the next time. But sometimes we get into some really good disputes. Take last night for example. We argued for over an hour about sour cream. Well, I guess the sour cream was the catalyst to larger issues, but still, it was amusing. And so, while I will be posting on our recent trip at some point (we had a wonderful time, but it was strange to hear “White Christmas” playing when it was 30+ °C outside), I’m going to make my first entry of the new year about one of our other arguments this week. Well, no, it’s more about traditions. Well, actually it’s mostly about tuna. (Yeah, clearly not much has changed.)

But, before I get into that, I just want to extend major props to those of you who stuck with this sporadic blog for nearly a year. I hope the first week of 2014 has treated everyone well so far.

sourcreamBeing half Japanese, Wilf holds New Year’s festivities to a high level of importance. Unfortunately, since we flew back to Vancouver on New Year’s Eve, then slept for the majority of New Year’s Day, his celebrating was put on hold for a few days this year. But, after much delay, he finally managed to get the time to make mochi ball soup (technically ozoni) for lunch on Sunday, as per New Year’s tradition in Japan. It was during this lunch that we proceeded to embark on another tradition: our annual New Year’s argument about the first tuna sale at Tsukiji.

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In recent years, Tsukiji has made global news as a result of the exorbitant price fetched by the first bluefin* tuna sold in the new year. Last year a 222 kg bluefin brought in $US1.7 million and in 2012, a 270 kg fish went for $US736,000. From 2008 to 2012, the price was roughly doubling every year. As a result, every year there are a number of news reports, blog entries, commentaries, &c. that discuss this issue and the general consensus is that a high price is indicative of the demand for these fish. Wilf gets seriously grumpy and agitated (‘infuriated’ might be a better word) with regard to the use of these specific auction prices as the basis for this argument and goes on about how people don’t understand the situation at all. (Personally, I think this is largely Japanese Wilf rather than Economist Wilf talking, but I try to be understanding and empathetic.) Yet, as I recently observed first-hand the situation of bluefin consumption in Japan, I was actually more inclined to agree with my other half this time around. And, after much discussing and analogy-ing, we finally have a more combined perspective on the situation.

TSUKIJIBLUESIt is unfortunate, but this ridiculous show gives global consumers a false impression of the luxury and worth of this fish. I have always thought that a patron choosing bluefin at a restaurant because they saw a headline with its price at Tsukiji is synonymous with buying a copy of Monet’s Waterlilies or the Mona Lisa—it shows you have money, culture, and you can fit in with the crowd. And showcasing a threatened fish in this way just doesn’t sit well with me. While Wilf agrees with me on this, he gets most upset with the argument that these annual record setting prices are indicative of a runaway demand that is driving this species to extinction. The last three years, the same sushi restauranteur, Kiyoshi Kimura, has won the auction. And so, in Wilf’s opinion, what these record prices actually show is the premium that certain buyers are placing on the importance of obtaining the first sale of the year. This premium is largely based on the fact that they make not only national news, but global news as well. So the price that these restaurants pay for the first tuna is nothing compared to the value that they gain from the publicity. We saw Kimura’s restaurant just outside Tsukiji and hanging above the entrance are larger-than-life photos of him and these tuna. Essentially, these purchases are nothing more than advertising costs. Wilf additionally suggested that if blobfish was the first item on the auction list at Tsukiji, we would be having this discussion regarding blobfish instead. (I don’t know if I agree completely with that, but I do see where he’s coming from.)

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Trying to come up with a generalization of the demand from this single sale is similar to discussing the general trend in baseball card trading based on periodic record-breaking sales of Babe Ruth rookie cards. Any scientist will tell you that using the outliers in a set of data to formulate your argument is just plan ridiculous. This isn’t to say that we don’t both agree that bluefin stocks are in trouble and this inflation is not good for fisheries or for the stock.  We absolutely do. We also agree that this auction is worrisome from a safety perspective as it drives tuna fishermen in Japan to go out in potentially dangerous conditions in late December in search of the bluefin that could make them a millionaire.

After lunch on Sunday, we heard that the first bluefin of 2014 (weighing 230 kg) sold for a meager $US70,000 (roughly 5% of last year’s price). As Food Sake Tokyo points out, it wasn’t even the most expensive fish of the day (on a per kilo basis). So, as one can imagine, Wilf was pompously parading around our apartment like a show pony for the rest of the day. In his opinion, this substantial decrease in price was almost certainly because one of the competing buyers decided not to participate in this type of marketing this year, not because there is suddenly an oversupply of bluefin, or a change of heart by consumers who are now abstaining from eating unsustainable tuna. In addition to his hypothesis, there have been lots of interesting commentaries and perspectives on both the auction and bluefin fisheries in general from a variety of sources (including The Guardian, Southern Fried Science, and The Atlantic) over the last couple of days. Nonetheless, only time will tell what will come of this big event. However, if this year is indicative of future trends, it’s good news for the fishermen, and the fish.

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I’m also happy to mention that Wilf has offered to help me find more time for my blog. As such, he’s decided to take over dinner responsibilities every Wednesday to give me an evening specifically dedicated to writing. My hope is that this will allow me to get out a post per week, although I’d be happy with two or three a month. I’m hoping he’ll make Japanese food fairly regularly, and I’ve also suggested that he try to cook something from the OceanWise cookbook once a month since we both want to include more types of sustainable seafood in our diet!

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 *There is additional cultural significance to this sale as the first bluefin is always a Pacific bluefin and caught in the waters off Japan.

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