The rapid growth in the consumption of sushi provides an opportunity for insight into the effects of globalization. Looking at how a single fish, the bluefin tuna, is caught by New England fishermen, flown to the Tokyo fish market, and consumed around the world is a technological and culturally fascinating story.
Bluefin tuna are a remarkable fish. They can swim at speeds of 40 mph allowing them to cross the Atlantic Ocean in 5 days. Another interesting aspect is their size, weighing up to 1400 pounds. When bluefin meat reached $80 per pound in the 1980s, a single fish could sell for over $100,000.
However, before the 1970s, bluefin tuna ended up in boats mainly by accident. Sport fishermen would take a picture with the fish on the dock and sell the meat for pet food or pay for its burial in the town dump. The handling of bluefin tuna changed dramatically after the fish became a highly valued item in Japan.
Today, New England fishermen use small boats and specialized equipment to specifically fish for bluefin tuna. After being caught, fishermen promptly kill and package the bluefin tuna in ice to prevent spoiling, along with meeting the cultural demands of the Japanese marketplace. Upon arrival at the pier, buyers inspect the fish for imperfections and estimate the potential fat content. A higher fat content will translate into larger prices on the auction block. After calling or checking the prices on the market in Japan, the tuna is boxed with ice into a “Tuna Coffin” and trucked to New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport, where within hours of being caught is on a plane for the 14 hour flight to Japan.
Upon arrival in Japan, the tuna are trucked to the Tsukiji fish market, the largest seafood marketplace in the world. Fish are laid out for inspection by bidders who arrive early in the morning to examine the selection. Once a bidder purchases a fish, it is delivered to the restaurant or other final destination for food preparation in Japan or across the globe.
As an island nation, traditional foods in Japan tend to focus on seafood. Sushi has been served in Japan for centuries, but until the end of WWII, was considered a fast food. Sushi did not reach elite status until the economic prosperity of the 1970s. Many people have attempted to explain why the fish receive such immense scrutiny and delicate handling. Answers range from, the red tuna meat matching the national flag, using historical events such as linking the fish to the samurai, the old Japanese passion for tuna, or simply that it tastes good.
As a global species, bluefin tuna inhabit the waters of the North Atlantic, to the Mediterranean Sea, and the fishing grounds of the South Pacific. Although each region is home to diverse cultures, they all share a desire to catch as much fish as possible. Fueled by the demand of consumers leading to rampant over fishing, the once abundant bluefin tuna along with other species of fish are rapidily declining, an unintended consequence of becoming a global commodity.
Bestor, Theodore C.. Tsukiji: The Fish Market at the Center of the World (California Studies in Food and Culture, 11). Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004.
Clover, Charles. The End of the Line: How Overfishing Is Changing the World and What We Eat. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008.
Issenberg, Sasha. The Sushi Economy: Globalization and the Making of a Modern Delicacy. New York: Gotham, 2008.