A bluefin tuna sold for a record •155.4 million (Dh6.4m) at a Tokyo auction yesterday, nearly three times the previous high set last year - even as environmentalists warn that stocks of the majestic, speedy fish are being depleted worldwide amid strong demand for sushi.
The 222-kilogram tuna, caught off north-eastern Japan fetched its record price at the year's first auction, said Ryoji Yagi, a market official. The sale was held at Tokyo's sprawling Tsukiji fish market.
The fish's tender pink and red meat is prized for sushi and sashimi. The best slices of fatty bluefin - called "o-toro" in Japan - can sell for •2,000 yen a piece at upmarket Tokyo sushi bars.
Japanese eat 80 per cent of the bluefin tuna caught worldwide, and much of the global catch is shipped to Japan for consumption.
The winning bidder, Kiyoshi Kimura, the president of Kiyomura Co, which operates the Sushi-Zanmai restaurant chain, said "the price was a bit high", but that he wanted to "encourage Japan", according to the Kyodo News agency. He was planning to serve the fish to customers later yesterday. Mr Kimura also set the old record of •56.4m at last year's New Year's auction, which tends to attract high bids as a celebratory way to kick off the new year, or get some publicity. The high prices don't necessarily reflect exceptionally high fish quality.
Stocks of all three bluefin species - the Pacific, Southern and Atlantic - have fallen over the past 15 years amid overfishing.
On Monday, an intergovernmental group is to release data on Pacific Bluefin stocks that environmentalists believe will likely show an alarming decline. "Everything we're hearing is that there's no good news for the Pacific Bluefin," said Amanda Nickson, the director of the Washington-based Pew Environmental Group's global tuna conservation campaign. "We're seeing a very high value fish continue to be overfished."
The population of another species, the Southern Bluefin, which swims in the southern Pacific, has plunged to 3-8 per cent of its original levels.
Stocks of bluefin caught in the Atlantic and Mediterranean plunged by 60 per cent between 1997 and 2007 due to rampant, often illegal, overfishing and lax quotas.
Although there has been some improvement in recent years, experts say the outlook for the species is still fragile.