Waves of discontent as customers cash in on record tuna

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 06 January, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 06 January, 2011, 12:00am

A Hong Kong sushi chain has paid a record price for a giant bluefin tuna at the world's biggest wholesale fish auction - and plans to sell the fish to customers at a big discount, drawing fire from conservationists.

Taste of Japan, which runs the Itamae Sushi and Itacho Sushi restaurants in Hong Kong, won the bidding for the biggest fish at the first auction of the new year at the Tsukiji market, for the fourth year running.

In partnership with Tokyo-based restaurant Kyubey it paid 32.49 million yen (HK$3.07 million) for the 342 kilogram Pacific bluefin tuna, breaking the previous record that saw a 202kg fish fetching HK$1.9 million in 2001.

Cuts from the giant fish will go on sale today or tomorrow for as little as an eighth of the auction value of the tuna, and are expected to sell out within hours.

'We will sell it below the market price as we do not aim to make any profit, just to express our gratitude to the loyal fans of Itacho Sushi and Itamae Sushi in the new year,' Sharon Chan of the chain's marketing department said.

However, conservationists saw it differently.

'We don't agree with the use of an overfished and endangered species as a promotional gimmick,' Allen To, a WWF Hong Kong marine conservation officer, said.

The tuna - estimated to have been over 20 years old - will be flown to Hong Kong today or tomorrow and will go straight to Sesson Kushiyaki and all Itamae Sushi and Itacho Sushi restaurants in Hong Kong and Macau, except for those at the airport.

A piece of sushi with a standard cut of tuna will cost diners HK$38, despite the fact that Taste of Japan paid about HK$238 for the cut at auction. Fatty tuna, or toro, will cost HK$68, compared with an auction price of HK$475, and a piece of sushi with the prime cuts of 'supreme toro' will cost restaurantgoers HK$98 despite an auction value of HK$855.

Regular tuna sushi sells for HK$13 apiece while toro goes for HK$35 in the restaurants.

'I expect once it comes to Hong Kong it will sell immediately,' Chan said.

To of the WWF said imports of bluefin tuna to Hong Kong had increased thirteenfold since 2004.

'The high price paid for the bluefin tuna is a concern in itself ... Economic drivers can make it very difficult to sustainably manage the fishery, as the fishers have a major incentive to continue fishing even when populations get very low.'

Of the three types of bluefin tuna in the world, two have been labelled critically endangered species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, with their numbers dropping about 90 per cent since the 1970s. The third type, Pacific bluefin tuna, has not been assessed, but the WWF says it is overfished.

Taste of Japan has bid over HK$6 million in tuna auctions since 2008.

Toro! toro! toro!

Taste of Japan intends to take a steep loss on its record HK$3m fish

The chain will sell a piece of supreme toro for HK$98. If the full auction value were applied, the sushi would cost: $855