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Fishing Industry

Farm-Raised Tuna May Not Be the Answer to Overfishing

Atlantic bluefin tuna at the opening of fishing season off Spain's southern coast

Photograph by Emilio Morenatti/AP Photo

Atlantic bluefin tuna at the opening of fishing season off Spain's southern coast

With Japan mired in a further recession and electronics giants Sony (SNE), Panasonic (PC), and Sharp (6753:JP) losing billions of dollars, the Japanese can take consolation that they’re still tops in some things. Case in point: Nobody can beat its fishmongers. Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo is the world’s biggest and its first auction of 2013 again set a record for the world’s priciest tuna. Kiyomura, a sushi chain in Japan’s capital, paid ¥155.4 million ($1.76 million) on Jan. 5 for the honor of buying the first bluefin tuna of the year. That’s triple the record set last year.

The price is about symbolism: The 222-kilogram (489 pound) tuna is big—big enough for 10,000 pieces of sushi—but that’s not unusual for bluefin. An averageAtlantic bluefin can weigh over 500 lbs. and the Pacific and Southern Ocean bluefin are hefty, too. As such an outsized fish, bluefin easily capture media attention at the Tsukiji auction. However, they also are more vulnerable than smaller fish to environmental disasters such as the 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. And because of the fish’s popularity among sushi lovers, overfishing of bluefin “has almost led to its extinction,” according to the World Wildlife Foundation.

You might think that aquaculture is the answer. Farm-raised salmon is common in the U.S. A decade ago, few Americans ate tilapia, but now the white fish is a favorite of the food industry, thanks to farms in China and other countries. Bluefin are much bigger than those other fish; as a result, they are much harder to breed on farms. Most bluefin are either caught in the wild (in the Atlantic, Pacific, and Southern oceans) or captured as small fish and raised on fish ranches.

However, catching bluefin tuna when they’re young and then raising them on giant fish farms just makes the problem worse, according to Seafood Watch, the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s program focusing on ocean sustainability. “All populations of bluefin tuna are being caught faster than they can reproduce,” the California aquarium says on its website. “Bluefin is being further depleted by ranching operations that collect small bluefin and raise them to full size to sell primarily to the sushi market.”

Seafood Watch has “Avoid” recommendations for both wild-caught and ranch-raised bluefin, and the Monterey organization isn’t the only group critical of the bluefin industry. The Environmental Defense Fund has an “Eco-Worst Choice” grade for all types of bluefin tuna. The EDF also warns about the health dangers of elevated levels of mercury and PCBs in the fish. “Adults and kids should not eat at all,” the organization warns.

For years, people in the fish industry have been pursuing the elusive goal of breeding bluefin completely on farms, from eggs all the way to mature fish. Clean Seas Tuna, an Australian aquaculture company, has been one of the leaders in efforts to breed tuna; Time included the company’s breeding tank in the magazine’s “50 Best Inventions of 2009.”

However, Clean Seas announced right before Christmas that it was suspending its breeding program for southern bluefin tuna (SBT). “The volume and quantity of fertilised eggs produced to date has been disappointing compared to other seasons,” the company said in a statement to the Australian stock exchange. “Whilst the Company continues to believe in the commercialisation potential of the successful closure of the SBT lifecycle, investment beyond the Company’s current financial resources will be required for this goal to be achieved.” Clean Seas stock traded at 2 Australian dollars in 2008 and now trades at 2 Australian cents.

Clean Seas isn’t the only bluefin-focused company facing some hard times. Oli Steindorsson, the chairman and chief executive officer of San Diego-based Umami Sustainable Seafood, resigned from all his positions at the company, “effective immediately,” Umami announced on Dec. 10. The new chairman, James White, serves on the boards of several resource companies, including PC Gold (PKL:CN) and Auriga Gold (AIA:CN). Umami “believes that Mr. White is qualified to serve as chairman of the Board due to his financial background and experience in the debt and equity markets,” the company said.

I interviewed Steindorsson in 2011 and he warned then about the need for patience. Given the challenges in trying to breed a fish that can easily weigh over 300 lbs., he said, Unami’s program would need five to seven further years before there would be results. “This is not an Intel (INTC) chip, these are biological creatures,” he said. “No matter how fast we want to do this, we always have to respect the laws of nature.”

Einhorn is Asia regional editor in Bloomberg Businessweek’s Hong Kong bureau. Follow him on Twitter @BruceEinhorn.

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