x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Push bluefin off the menu or go without for good

You've heard of peak oil, that theoretical point when the world can no longer produce enough oil to keep up with demand? We have hit peak tuna.

A friend and I are planning to try a new sushi restaurant this week. Normally, I'd be looking forward to my favourite, maguro - tuna. Or toro - tuna belly. I'll be skipping those from now on, though. It turns out that I'm not the only one with a soft spot for raw tuna. You've heard of peak oil, that theoretical point when the world can no longer produce enough oil to keep up with demand? We have hit peak tuna.

That is how two Stanford graduate students, Dane Klinger and Kimiko Narita, put it in the latest issue of Foreign Policy magazine. And not just any tuna. Bluefin tuna. Thanks to the popularity of bluefin tuna in the world's biggest market for sushi, Japan, stocks of one species, the Atlantic bluefin tuna, are down to 10 per cent or less of their normal levels. That makes them more than scarce; that makes them nearly extinct. Time was when people were boycotting tuna because the nets used to catch them were ensnaring dolphins. Now they want to ban trade in Atlantic bluefin tuna because the nets used to catch them are ensnaring too many tuna.

At the rate we're going, by 2012 some lucky diner will have the privilege of dipping the very last slice of Atlantic bluefin in some soy sauce and gulping it down. I wonder how much they'll have to pay for it. Not enough, obviously. Bluefin is already pricey. This year, a 232kg bluefin tuna sold for more than ¥70,000 (Dh2,809) a kilogram at auction in Tokyo's fish market. But that was well shy of the record, which was set in 2001 when a 202kg bluefin sold for ¥100,000 a kilogram.

The bluefin is undoubtedly a special fish. We're not talking about the albacore tuna you find in cans. The bluefin is no chicken of the sea. It can swim as fast as 80kph and as far as 9,600km. It eats only squid, small fish and krill, yet can weigh as much as 400kg. And unlike the pink or white meat of most open-sea fish, the bluefin's meat is a deep ruby red, like a steak. It is melt-in-your-mouth delicious, particularly because the meat is marbled with fat, just like the best grain-fed beef. The fat is particularly rich in the tuna's belly.

Yet tuna is arguably much healthier for the consumer than beef. It is full of omega-3 fatty acids, which are believed to reduce the risk of a variety of ailments, including heart disease, Alzheimer's disease and irritable bowel syndrome. I fell in love with raw tuna while living in Tokyo. I used to wake up some days at 4.30am just to catch the auctions at the Tsukiji fish market, then line up for a breakfast of sushi with the traders.

The tuna was always a highlight of the meal, and one typically eats it after almost all of the lighter fish on offer, and just before the sea urchin roe. The problem is that the bluefin's price is based largely on its exclusivity, not on its scarcity. Otherwise, we couldn't afford to eat it out of existence. If the financial crisis has taught us anything, it's that free-market capitalism does not always come up with efficient prices.

We don't pay enough for bluefin tuna considering what eating them does to their survival as a species. Their extinction will prove that. We don't pay enough for fossil fuels, considering what burning them does to our long-term survival as a species. Climate change proves that. Ideally, the cost of burning hydrocarbons should rise to the point where we can't afford to burn enough to ruin our environment. But it won't. The price of tuna should rise to the point where we can't afford to eat it faster than tuna can reproduce. But it won't.

So next month in Doha, a meeting of the signatories to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora will consider a proposal from Monaco to ban international trade in Atlantic bluefin tuna. If the ban is adopted, the only place you'll be able to legally eat an Atlantic bluefin is in the country where it is caught. If it works, a ban on trading Atlantic bluefin would hit Japan and sushi lovers like me hard. Many are already complaining that the proposal is a direct attack on Japanese culture and Japan's way of life.

It isn't. Sushi chefs use all kinds of bluefin - Atlantic, Pacific and the Southern. Japan bought about 80 per cent of all the Atlantic bluefins caught last year, making up roughly half of all the bluefin Japanese ate. Scientists are now managing to breed tuna in captivity, but not yet in volumes that can ease the pressure on wild stocks. While most people consider sushi to be as Japanese as Mount Fuji, sushi turns out to have been a relatively recent innovation. It wasn't until 1824 that a Tokyo shopkeeper thought to start selling raw fish draped over a wad of vinegared rice.

Japan's taste for fatty bluefin was an even more recent development. Before modern refrigeration allowed Japanese to flash-freeze tuna caught half a world away and truck it safely all over the country, the fatty tuna belly was something tossed to alley cats. Now it fetches up to ¥2,000 a slice. Will a ban work where markets have failed? Probably not. There's been an international body dedicated to preserving tuna stocks since 1969 - the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas. It hasn't worked.

Japanese buyers and European fishers will undoubtedly find ways around a ban. Japan has already said it would ignore it. And banning the sale of Atlantic bluefin will only put additional pressure on other bluefin species. The only way to save the bluefin is if Japan agrees to help diminish its taste for it, whether by prohibiting its consumption or taxing wild imports while subsidising farmed substitutes.

If it does not, that next piece of toro melting in your mouth might be the last. warnold@thenational.ae