By Elaine Kurtenbach
TOKYO -- Sushi restaurateur Kiyoshi Kimura paid 7.36 million yen (about $70,000) for a 507-pound (230-kilogram) bluefin tuna in the year's celebratory first auction at Tokyo's Tsukiji market on Sunday, just 5% of what he paid a year earlier, despite signs that the species is in serious decline.
Kimura's record-winning bid last year of 154.4 million yen for a 222-kilogram (489-pound) fish drew complaints that prices had soared way out of line, even for an auction that has always drawn high bids. Kimura also set the previous record of 56.4 million yen at the 2012 auction.
The high prices don't necessarily reflect exceptionally high fish quality.
"I'm glad that the congratulatory price for this year's bid went back to being reasonable," said Kimura, whose Kiyomura Company operates the popular Sushi-Zanmai restaurant chain.
Environmentalists say growing worldwide consumption of bluefin tuna is leading to its depletion, and that those in charge of managing fisheries for the species are failing to take responsible action to protect it.
Japanese eat about 80% of all bluefin tuna caught worldwide, though demand is growing as others acquire a taste for the tender, pink and red flesh of the torpedo-shaped speedsters of the sea.
Stocks of all three bluefin species -- the Pacific, Southern and Atlantic -- have fallen over the past 15 years amid overfishing. Stocks of bluefin caught in the Atlantic and Mediterranean plunged by 60% 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.
According to a stock assessment released last year by the International Scientific Committee for Tuna and Tuna-like Species in the North Pacific Ocean, the bluefin tuna population is at less than 4% of its unfished size.