Your lunchtime sashimi is part of a 42-millennia-long tradition, according to archaeologists who have found tuna bones left over from the lunches of prehistoric cavemen, but that's about to end. Over the past 50 years, modern fishermen have started dragging giant bluefin tuna -the worlds most sought-after species- to market faster than it could reproduce. Now, 96% percent of the bluefin population has vanished from the Northern Pacific Ocean.
What's left may be the world's last generation of bluefin. To protect the species, the International Union for Conservation of Nature has added the Pacific bluefin tuna to its "Red List" of endangered species. International conventions increasingly restrict the amount of bluefin that may be fished.
But criminals have been filling the gap between legal supply and demand for years; in 2010, a special investigation by the International Consortium of Independent Journalists valued the bluefin black-market at US $4 billion.
It works like this: tuna profiteers send fishing crews to Libya, Egypt and Tunisia, whose governments may be turning a blind eye in return for a cut of the catch. Whatever bluefin they net are hauled live to deep-sea tuna ranches to be “laundered”: mixed with legally caught tuna, shot in the head, flash-frozen and sent to buyers in Los Angeles or in Tokyo, home of the biggest fish market in the world. At its height, illegal fishing accounted for one in every three bluefin caught.
In 2013, the first tuna of the year sold for $1.7 million, worrying conservationists -and plenty of others- that the outrageous price would create even stronger incentive to plunder the last ancient fish from the seas. This year, the ceremonial first bluefin sold for a mere $37,000, spurring a collective sigh of relief (and speculation of a bluefin market crash). But at $93.75 per pound, the ruby flesh remains more precious than lobster.
Photo: Kiyoshi Kimura cuts his $37,500 bluefin tuna after winning it at the annual Tsukiji Market auction in Tokyo, Japan. January 5, 2014. Thomas Peter/Reuters.