This is where tuna ends

Tuna at Tsukiji
Whole frozen tuna on a forklift at Tsukiji fish market, Tokyo

I have no hope whatsoever for the future of tuna. The death warrant for Atlantic tuna was written at the last meeting of the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas, ensuring that current tuna stocks will have a 50% chance of recovering in the next decade. The tuna is one of the only endangered species that you could buy at the supermarket to feed to your cat or rave about eating a perfect red shard atop vinegared rice without social repercussions. I doubt this prevailing attitude will change before the bluefin and yellowfin tuna are well dead.

Roughly, three quarters of the world’s tuna is eaten by Japan and from four in the morning, it looks like roughly three quarters of the Japan’s tuna is at Tsukiji fish market in downtown Tokyo. Frozen torpedoes of fish are lined up in a warehouse for auction, a visual cliche of Tokyo that wrestles for space in travel brochures with Goth Lolitas and that busy intersection in Shibuya.

The auction rooms are currently cut off to tourists thanks to its popularity and the propensity of tourists to fall beneath forklifts. (It appears that the auction area is actually open to a limited number of visitors each day (Cheers, Akila) – I must have missed the cut). Austin Bush has some excellent coverage of the auctions. I concentrated on what happens next.

Tuna at Tsukiji

The areas where the middlemen transfer and dismantle the tuna is still accessible for death by forklift. Tuna are transferred from the auction area into stalls on handcarts yoked to the elderly, motorised gurneys which appear to be the offspring of a motorcycle and a double bed, and your construction-variety forklift.

Whole frozen tuna on a cart

Tuna are kept cool with blocks of dry ice while they await the bandsaw. The smaller stallholders break down their morning’s buy into component cuts, dividing the buttery belly cuts from the coarser red flesh. It’s a much less sterile process that I would have expected with tuna heads piling up on the concrete floor before the flesh is removed from their cheeks, collar and eyes.

Filleting Tuna at Tsukiji

Fresh fish are hand-filleted. If you’re at all interested in the full Japanese 27-step process for breaking down a tuna, Cooking Issues comes up with the goods.

Tuna at Tsukiji

Once removed from the bone, fillets are further onsold; restaurants and smaller vendors picking up particular cuts to resell elsewhere in the city and sate the endless appetite for this doomed fish.

6 Comments This is where tuna ends

  1. Mike Crispino

    Thanks for an interesting blog, it’s now bookmarked on this man’s mac.

    Just wanted to point out one thing though – bluefin tuna is barely 1% of all tuna fished in the world. So while the destructive overfishing that’s driving this species to the brink can not be diminished, its impact on regular folks is minimal. Bluefin doesn’t end up in a can and rarely does it end up on a table outside of Japan.

    My organization is working to protect the world’s other 99% of tuna stocks from such horribly devastating overfishing. Fortunately, we’re not even close to bluefin status for the rest of the tuna out there.


  2. Michael B [KyotoFoodie]

    I doubt that bluefin tuna will ever go extinct but I do think that their situation will probably get worse before it gets better.

    One thing though, the vast majority of tuna I see in Japanese markets such as Tsukiji or the one here in Kyoto is not wild. I realize that tuna ranching introduces another set of problems, but it is better than extinction of wild bluefin.

    The last time I ate tuna was November 2009. The time before that, I do not recall.

    Thanks for the link to the excellent article.


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