The Story of Tuna: How It Became the Most Expensive and World’s Most Prized Fish

A 278-kilogram bluefin tuna was sold for a record $3.1 million on the first day of auction sales for 2019 in Tokyo’s new fish market, BBC has reported. Kiyoshi Kimura, owner of Kiyomura Corp., made the record purchase. The fish would have been sold for only $60,000 on a normal day. While status and publicity were part of the reason why he made the record-breaking purchase, bluefin tuna are still one of the most expensive and most prized fish in the world. Why is this so?

From rags to riches

The tuna’s story is comparable to that of the lobster’s. No one really wanted them until, well, people started coveting them. The story of tuna may well be one that of from rags to riches, so to speak. In fact, they were deemed trash fish by fishermen until the early 1900s. Speaking of trash, in the 1940s to the 1960s, which was the height of tuna sport fishing craze, they were sent to landfills after they were weighed and photographed. Moreover, in the United States, it sold for pennies per pound in the 1960s. It was a cheap source of protein; it was poor-man’s food. It hasn’t always been the most prized fish in Japan either. For one, its old Japanese name was shibi. But what’s in a name? Well, it means, “the day of death”. Considering human beings’ general aversion towards death, who can blame them for not loving tuna? There’s also the fact that before refrigeration, the only way to make sure that fish were fresh was by keeping them alive for as long as possible. Given that tuna were on the larger size, it was particularly difficult to keep them alive. Thus, they went bad rather quick – the fatty parts went bad before the leaner parts did. Needless to say, no one (human beings, at least) liked the fatty parts. They were disliked so much so that “they were deemed fit only for cats”.

As with any good story, the fate of tuna came with an ironic twist: those fatty parts that people had so much disdain for are now some of the most expensive food you can eat. This twist of fate took place in the early 1970s, when the Japanese acquired a liking for fatty beef. However, Japan doesn’t have much space for cattle ranches. So, they took to the ocean (something which surrounds them) and found their fatty beef there – particularly, the bluefin tuna.

Well, Japan also started delivering electronics to the United States with their cargo planes. Instead of returning home empty, they brought home with them tuna carcasses that they bought for cheap near New England fishing docks. They were then sold for thousands of dollars in Japan. Also, refrigeration technology caught up eventually, which means that fishing operators can preserve and freeze tuna. They didn’t have to dump the fish back into the sea.

Needless to say, they are no longer trash fish, and they are much more than that: they are the most expensive and most prized fish in the world.