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Our Singularity Future: Overfished Bluefin Tuna Sells for Record $1.76 Million

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In early 2013, a single 489 pound bluefin tuna sold in Japan for a record $1.76 million. That’s roughly two homes in San Francisco and a Ferrari for each driveway—two and a half times last year’s record $736,000. It makes a shocking headline (guilty as charged). But notably the price is not representative of the market. Buyers traditionally compete to attract headlines in the first auction of the new year.

Although current prices aren’t anywhere near $3,500/lb, it is true bluefin tuna are getting more expensive. (See here for Tokyo fish market wholesale prices back to 1997.) Rising demand from sushi restaurants combined with diminishing supply has led to fewer fish and higher prices.

It’s natural to blame technology for overfishing. With modern fishing techniques like “purse seining” boats can undoubtedly snare more fish than ever before. But humans have pushed other species to the brink of extinction with cruder tools. If the demand is there, someone will bring the supply.

And there is little doubt demand for sushi has been growing for years within Japan—where it used to be a delicacy but is now served with regularity—and outside Japan too. As more people eat sushi, bluefin stocks, a particularly popular ingredient in sushi, are feeling the pressure.

To allow the fish time to recover, Atlantic bluefin tuna were placed under strict quotas in 2010. But less protection has been afforded Pacific bluefin, perhaps to their detriment. In one recent oft-cited report by the International Committee for Tuna and Tuna-like Species in the North Pacific Ocean, Pacific bluefin tuna stock is “near historically low biomass levels and experiencing high exploitation levels above all biological reference points (BRPs) commonly used by fisheries managers.”

But perhaps there is no more credible source for fish market trends than 85-yeard-old sushi master Jiro Ono. (The 2011 documentary, Jiro Dreams of Sushi, is a brilliant film—if you haven’t seen it.) Jiro says there never used to be a shortage of good fish at market. But over the years, that’s changed. In his words, “If you have a sushi restaurant you’ll have to find substitutes for certain fish. But is there a substitute for tuna? I don’t think so.”

Where technology coupled with strong demand may do harm—might it also help? Scientists recently tested a Liquid Robotics Wave Glider to track unstable salmon populations in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Tagged fish are notoriously hard to track as they don’t have to surface like marine mammals. The Wave Glider can read tags under water and relay the data to a satellite, providing real time data back on land.

Whether it’s Liquid Robotics, or some other innovator, perhaps better monitoring of our oceans and more robust systems to analyze the data will make for better informed, more timely resource management in the future.

Banner Image Credit: Danilo Cedrone; NOAA Photo Library; Courtesy of United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization

Image Credit: Josh Berglund, Flickr 

Jason Dorrier

Jason is managing editor of Singularity Hub. He cut his teeth doing research and writing about finance and economics before moving onto science, technology, and the future. He is curious about pretty much everything, and sad he'll only ever know a tiny fraction of it all.

Discussion — 3 Responses

  • ErikSMeyer January 31, 2013 on 1:50 pm

    “Where there’s a demand, someone will bring the supply”… that would, of course, explain why there have never been any famines and no species have ever been hunted to extinction. The greater the demand, the more inducement there is to supply it; not the same thing at all. Markets do not provide in the sense of bringing about abundance, they just give people reasons to find ways to sell things that other people want. This can lead, depending on circumstances, to resource exhaustion (witness the Ivory trade driving elephants to extinction in Africa, among many examples). Before the Industrial Revolution this was universally understood, but in the last two centuries we have come to think that any time the demand is sufficiently great, someone will find a way to supply it, no matter what, as though this followed necessarily and automatically, instead of requiring human cooperation, ingenuity (generally), and, of course, the existence of possible ways to meet the demand (within resource constraints; human intelligence being one of the constrained resources). Further, by “demand,” we have to mean “demand” in the sense of preferences backed by money (i.e. it is not enough that people want something, or want something badly, even if they would “prefer” to spend any amount of money on food, for example, as compared with buying anything else, if they have no money, and no means of acquiring it, such preferences will be meaningless, there will be no “market demand,” and they will starve [all other things being equal]). This is why it is so asinine for people to say things like “the market will provide” when you reference problems associated with the population in Africa doubling to 2 billion in the next few decades.

    • Craig J. Townsend ErikSMeyer February 2, 2013 on 10:50 am

      You are wrong, real markets with ownership don’t lead to exhaustion, they manage resources more efficiently. nations in Africa that have provided ownership of elephants and allow culling and profiting from them has seen their numbers increase, all tragedies of the commons show the same problems. Over use. Since there is no legal ownership mechanism the first to take takes everything they can now. A real market with ownership rights would protect Tuna and every other species. They have before and they will again, it is the “tragedy of the commons” that keeps causing all of these problems.

  • persiflage February 9, 2013 on 10:48 pm