Sushi craze puts tuna under serious threat

PUBLISHED : Monday, 12 November, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 12 November, 2007, 12:00am

Fish species faces extinction as delicacy gains worldwide popularity

Think about the last time you visited a Japanese restaurant or a sushi counter in a supermarket in Hong Kong. How many pieces of sushi, rolls or sashimi - all usually stuffed with tuna - did you eat?

The Japanese are crazy about tuna, and they consume about 60,000 tonnes of the species every year. Over the past few decades, the sushi fever has spread across the globe, and this has driven tuna to the brink of extinction.

In Hong Kong, conveyor-belt sushi restaurants are springing up. You can see long queues of customers outside sushi bars during weekends, and the once-expensive cuisine is now affordable to almost everyone - for less than HK$10, you can get two pieces of salmon sushi in many restaurants.

There is also an increasing demand for the delicacy in China, Europe and North America, where people used to consider raw fish as unhygienic. Visiting modern, beautifully decorated sushi bars has become a trend among affluent city people.

Tuna is probably one of the must-eat dishes in Japanese cuisine. Tasty, slightly chewy and rich in protein, the reddish flesh comes from a magnificent creature that can grow up to three metres long and weigh hundreds of kilograms. But, as the demand for the fish grows, it is under serious threat worldwide.

Bluefin tuna, which mostly ends up in high-end sushi and sashimi dishes, is likely to be the first species to disappear. Manufacturers of those two delicacies gobble up 80 per cent of the world's stock.

While the Japanese account for a major proportion of the consumers, the rapidly increasing demand from other nations is decimating the species.

According to the World Wildlife Fund, Atlantic bluefin tuna is under serious threat due to massive overfishing in the Mediterranean Sea. In some coastal areas, it has almost disappeared. In addition, the spawning stock of Southern bluefin tuna in the Indian Ocean has been reduced by about 90 per cent.

In Japan, a bluefin tuna can fetch up to US$100,000 - no wonder it is regarded as foie gras of the sea.

Fishing for Atlantic tuna in the Mediterranean Sea is regulated by the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT). It allocates fishing quotas to its member countries every year.

For example, ICCAT this year approved an overall quota of 32,000 tonnes of bluefin tuna to Turkey, France, Italy, Algeria and other member countries. The figure is more than twice the amount recommended by scientists who say 15,000 tonnes is a sustainable level. However, the actual figure is much higher due to illegal fishing and poor management. Fishermen, especially those from France, Libya and Turkey, do not respect quotas. It is estimated that more than 50,000 tonnes of bluefin tuna were caught if illegal fishing was included.

Last year French fishermen hauled up almost double their national quota. The tuna consultancy ATRT revealed that Spain exported nearly 9,000 tonnes of the bluefin variety. This was well in excess of the country's quota and almost twice the amount Spain officially declared it had caught (4,722 tonnes).

A bluefin tuna can live up to 30 years, yet the numbers of the mature, giant fish have dropped drastically.

Bluefin tuna is now facing the threat of commercial extinction - a case of being too rare to catch before it totally disappears from the planet.

Japan has agreed to reduce its Atlantic tuna allocation, while ICCAT has promised to cut quotas gradually. But environmentalists believe that the species would recover only if there was an immediate halt to fishing.

The next time you are in a sushi bar, spare a thought for the magnificent creatures of the Atlantic Ocean.


1 How much tuna does the Japanese consume annually?

a. 15,000 tonnes

b. 50,000 tonnes

c. 60,000 tonnes

2 Which of the following is true?

a. Sushi is very popular all over the world

b. people must eat tuna with sushi

c. tuna is already extinct.

3 Which organisation is responsible for the Atlantic bluefin tuna stocks?

a. World Wildlife Fund

b. International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas

c. Japanese government

4 Where did sushi originally come from?

a. Japan

b. China

c. Turkey

Language focus

The use of present continuous tense

The present continuous is commonly used in English for actions happening right now or in the future.

The following is an example from the article:

While the Japanese account for a major proportion of the consumers, the rapidly increasing demand from other nations is decimating the species.

Fill in the blanks with the correct present continuous tense.

5. Camilla __________________ (write) a book about her adventures in Tibet, but she has not yet found a publisher.

6. My parents __________________ (always complain) about food; they are very concerned about their diet.

7 . My sister ____________________ (study) at the University of Hong Kong. Her aim is to become a doctor and specialise in cancer treatment.

Think about it

1 How often do you go to a sushi bar? Do you think sushi is healthy?

2 Do you like tuna? Will you eat less after reading the article?

3 What can be done to save the bluefin tuna?


1. c, 2. a, 3. b, 4. b, 5. is writing, 6. are always complaining, 7. is studying