Worldwide, the tuna fishing and processing industry is worth $3 billion a year. In the United States people consume 900 million cans of tuna year. Since 1950 the global catch of tuna has risen tenfold to an average of 4 million tons in 2002, 2003 and 2004.

trolling vessel
The world tuna catch, according to the FAO, has increased from about 500,000 tons in 1950 to 1.7 million tons in 1970 to 2.7 million tons in 1990 to 5.8 million tons in 2000 to 6 million in 2004. Japan consumes about one third of the world’s tuna catch. The United States is now the second largest market for fresh tuna. China significantly underreports its catch.

Japan leads the world in tuna consumption. It consumes one third of the world’s tuna production and 95 percent of the world’s toro. The United States consumes roughly another third. In 2003, about 458,000 tons of raw tuna was sold in Japan. Of this, 43 percent was caught in Japanese waters. The rest was imported. The consumption of raw tuna peaked in the early 1990s at around 528,000 tons.

About 1,200 fishing boats engage in oceangoing, long-line tuna fishing worldwide. Ninety percent of these are from Japan, China, South Korea and Taiwan. These vessels often stay out at sea for about a year, conducting only a couple of catches during that time.

In January 2009, the Japanese government said that its longline tuna fleet would be cut by 10 percent to 20 percent in response to higher international restrictions on tuna catches. The number of ocean-going vessels would be reduced from 390 to between 310 and 380 ships. The number of coastal vessels would be reduced from 349 to between 300 and 310 ships. The move is expected to result in the loss of 1,000 jobs and raise the price of tuna.

Websites and Resources


Good Websites and Sources on Fishing: Good Photos at Japan-Photo Archive ; Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries ; Statistical Handbook of Japan Fisheries Section ; 2010 Edition ; News

Good Websites and Sources on Blue Fin Tuna Fishing : Northern Blue Fin Tuna ; Southern Blue Fin Tuna ; Wikipedia article on Blue Fin Tuna Wikipedia ; Blue fin Tuna Fishing Methods ; Mediterranean Blue Fin Tuna Aquaculture ; Southern Bluefin Tuna Aquaculture ; Blue Fin Tuna Farming Off Spain

Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo : Tsukiji Market site ; Essay on Tsukiji ; Wikipedia Wikipedia ; Tsukiji Research ; Japan Guide Getting There: Best Japanese Sushi ; Photos: Tsukiji Tour

Traditional Fishing in Japan: Ama Divers ; Ama Physiology ; Amasan ; Squid Fishing ; Cormorant fishing Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Cormorant fishing in Yangshuo yangshuo-travel-guide ; Photos of Cormorant fishing ; Articles on Cormorant Fishing

Tuna Fishing Methods

trolling for tuna
Barbless hooks, lines and poles are used primarily to catch yellowfin tuna and skipjack. Fishermen stand at the side of the boat with short poles with lured barbless hooks and sardine chum is thrown in the water. Tuna feed on the chum by the thousands and the fishermen yank them out with poles that have a swing on them. The fisherman need to be strong. The boats stay out at sea until its refrigerated hold are filled with fish.

Yellowfin and bigeye tuna are pursued with circle-hook-equipped longline fishing boats. The stocks of these fish are particularly large in the western and central Pacific Ocean, which is over seen by the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission, a group made up of 27 members in Asia, the Pacific and Europe, which are roughly divided between those that have exclusive economic zones in the area and those that exploit the region with ocean-going-vessels.

Many kinds of tuna are caught using purse-seine nets, which are capable of encircling and catching entire schools of tuna. Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and other major tuna fishing nations began using GPS devices in 2007 to monitor the activities of tuna fishing boats in the central and western Pacific Ocean, an area rich in yellowfin and bigeye tuna.

See Bluefin Tuna

Bluefin Tuna Fishing

Bluefin tuna accounted for 2.5 percent, or 56,828 tons, of the 2.35 million ton worldwide catch in 2003 of all kinds of tuna. High prices attract more fishermen. The WWF estimate the current fleet is 70 percent larger than is needed for a sustainable catch. Lower prices encourage existing fishermen to catch more fish to compensate for losses.

The European Union’s tuna industry is dominated by Spain. The industry there is centered around the southeaster region of Murcia. Italy and Malt also have large farms. Nearly all of it is exported to Japan.

Because bluefin tuna fishing is so lucrative the Italian, Asian and Russian mafia are involved. A scientist with the FAO told AP, “One big tuna can be worth as much as the most expensive Mercedes-Benz. How do you expect criminal organizations not to want to be in it”.

Bluefin Tuna Fishing Methods

Spanish purse seine vessels
Bluefin tuna have traditionally been caught by commercial fishermen with hooks and lines, purse seine and haul seine nets and harpoons. Small-scale operators often use hooks and spears. In Japan, bluefin tuna tend to be caught using the rod-and-line technique or long lines. In the Atlantic they are often caught with spotter planes and harpoons that electrocute the fish dead with hundred of volts of power. Favored fishing places include the Mediterranean, near the Azores and the waters off Boston.

The bluefin tuna season in Cape Cod begins in late June when the fish migrate to the North Atlantic. Spotter planes used to find tuna generally get 25 percent of the money from the sale of the fish. Electric harpoons are preferred for killing the tuna because fish that are caught with a line fight for a long time, which raises their body temperature and produces an unwanted flavor called “ya-ke”.

Immediately after being caught and brought on board bluefin tuna caught off Cape Cod are gutted, instantly frozen at -76̊F and put in coffin-like containers packed with ice and often transported later that day via cargo jets to Japan. Even fish caught by sport fishermen often end up in Japan. Japanese wholesalers have contacts at sport fishing dock in Miami and other places. At many ports where blue fin are brought, "tuna techs" from Tsukiji educate American fishermen about the tuna's “kata”, or ideal form, and what to look for in color, texture, fish content and body shape.

Tunisians around Sidi Daoud on the western coast of Ca Bon use an interesting methods of catching tuna that dates back to ancient times. Kilometers of nets are positioned along the route taken by tuna during the spawning season. They are set up so they are perpendicular to the shore and force the fish to swim into places where they are trapped by the nets.

In May and June, fisherman in boats surround the places the fish are trapped. They pull up the nets while shouting and singing traditional songs. As the bottom of the net reaches the surface the water boils with tuna as large as 250 kilograms. The fishermen jump into the water with knives and slash and stab the fish to death.

The bluefin tuna is also a prized sports fish, valued for its speed and fighting ability, Both Ernest Hemingway and Zane grey fished for them. Big, old fish hiding in caves are pursued with almost weightless nylon-Kevlar lines up to 750 meters long and equipped with lights and tiny cameras.

Almadradas and Tonnar

Fishermen have been catch bluefin tuna in the Mediterranean for more than 3,000 years. Using a technique that has been employed since Roman times, fishermen in southern Spain and Italy set up fixed trap nets known as “almadradas “ in Spanish and “tonnara “ in Italian — a labyrinth of nets anchored in shallow waters near the coast that funnels fish into chambers, where they were slaughtered. [Source: Fen Montaigne, National Geographic, April 2007]

In the mid 1800s around a hundred of these tuna traps harvested up to 15,000 tons of bluefin annually. The fishery was sustainable, supporting thousands of workers and their families. Today all but a dozen or so have been closed because of coastal development, pollution and overfishing. One of the last remaining ones that is open was built by Arabs in the 9th century on the island of Favignana of Sicily. In 1864 fisherman there caught a record 14,020 bluefin, averaging 425 pounds. In 2006, they caught around 100 fish, averaging 65 pounds. That year only one “mattanza” — in which the tuna and channeled into a netted chamber and slaughtered at the surface by fishermen who kill them with gaffs — was held. There are now plans to dress fishermen in historic costumes and reenact the mattanza.

Catching Bluefin Tuna in Japan

Purse seine illustration
The best bluefin tuna caching grounds in Japan are said to be in the Tsugaru Strait off Omamachi in Aomori Prefecture in northern Honshu. Bluefin tuna unloaded at the port in Omamachi are known as Oma Maguro. They tend to sell for double the price of tuna caught elsewhere.

The best bluefin tuna in the Tsugaru Strait are caught during the winter when the waters in the strait are rich in small fish eaten by tuna and it is not unusual for tuna weighing 300 kilograms or more to be caught.

Bluefin tuna are particularly valuable at that time of year because the are rich in fat and tuna supplies worldwide tend to decline in the winter. Fishermen risk their lives going out in the rough seas to catch tuna. Some lose fingers after getting them caught in fishing lines while trying to pull in large fish. One fisherman told the Yomiuri Shimbun, “In winter, I go out fishing even if the wind is blowing 70 kilometers per hour because its worth the danger.”

There is conflict there between fishermen using the rod-and-line technique and other who use long lines. In recent years as the price of bluefin tuna has risen and cost of fishing have increased, long line fishermen have intruded on fishing grounds reserved for rod- and-line fishing. The long lines are sometimes 3,000 meters long. Not only do conservation oppose the method other fishermen don’t like them because the long lines can become entangled created a mess in popular fishing areas.

Penalties of one year in prison and ¥500,000 fines for repeated violations don’t do much to deter the long line fishermen. There have been cases where long line boats have been chased and surrounded by rod-and-line boats who cut the lines of the long-line fishermen.

In January 2010, a 232.6-kilogram bluefin tuna was sold at Tsukiji for ¥16.28 million (about $175,000), or ¥70,000 a kilogram. The fish was caught off Oma-machi, Aomori Prefecture.

Modern Methods of Bluefin Tuna Fishing

20120521-PRUSE SEINE heFishinigQuiberon.jpg
purse seiner catch
Bluefin tuna are pursued by high tech fleets often with the help of spotter planes. Fishing vessels using echolocation and spotter planes have become so efficient at locating schools of bluefin tuna and netting them with purse seine nets the season’s quota can be reached in 10 days.

About 70 percent of the bluefin caught in the Mediterranean are netted by industrial purse-seine vessels with vast, sack-like nets that encircle tuna as they gather to spawn. Tuna schools are spotted with light planes and caught with a one cast net and slowly pulled to the farming area and placed in a 50-meter wide “pond” set in the sea. A spotter pilot in the Mediterranean, “There’s no way for the fish to escape — everything is high-tech...I couldn’t stand the way they fished with no care for the quotas. I saw these people taking everything, They catch whatever they want. They just see money on the sea. They don’t think what will be there in ten years.” Before the introduction of purse-seine fishing and tuna ranching in the 1990s, bluefin were caught using more artisnal and traditional methods.

The Gulf of Sidra in the Mediterranean off the coast of Libya has been described as “one of the last tuna Shangri-las,” with the average size of bluefin tuna being around 190 kilograms. Describing a fishing operation there in 2006 Fen Montaigne wrote in National Geographic, “Three other spotter aircraft were prowling illegally, relaying tuna sightings to some of the 20 purse seiners in the water below...Just before I arrived...two purse-seine fleets net 835,000 pound of bluefin, sharing more than two million dollars.”

One Mediterranean fisherman told National Geographic, “the price is cheap because more and more tuna are being caught. My only weapon is to catch more fish. It’s a viscous circle. If I catch my quota of a thousand tuna, I can’t live because the price is very cheap. I want to respect the quotas, but I can’t because I need to live, If boats of all countries respect the rules, and other don’t respect the rules, the fishermen who respected the rule is finished.”

Bluefin Tuna Stockpiles and Sales

Bregazzi claims that 47,000 tons of tuna has been stockpiled in Japan as of June 2009 in the anticipation that tuna fisheries will become depleted enough to send the price of tuna through the roof. In Japan, tuna are stored for long periods in warehouses where temperatures are kept at -60 degrees C. The stockpile of bluefin tuna in freezers across Japan is said to be enough to last for between a year and 18 months. Such huge stockpiles of tuna lead to prices of tuna falling by 10 percent in 2009 while there was talk of tuna going extinct.

Bluefin tuna caught off New England is sold at the docks to Japanese buyers who grade the fish for freshness color, fat and shape and offer prices based on the going rates at Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo that day. The purchased fish is packed in ice, transported to the airports and loaded on Japan Airlines planes at New York's Kennedy Airport for a 15 hour flight to Tokyo, where a single tuna can cost $80,000.

Describing the scene at a pier in Bath, Maine, Theodore Betsor wrote in the Daily Yomiuri, "After 20 minutes of eyeing the goods, many of the buyers return to their trucks to call Japan by cellular phone and get the morning prices from Tokyo's Tsukiji Market...The buyers give written bids to the dock manager, who passes the top bid for each fish to the crew that landed it."

"Each secret auction bid is examined anxiously by a cluster of young men. After a few minutes deals are closed and the fish are quickly loaded onto the backs of trucks in crates of crushed ice." American fishermen usually get around $10 to $20 a pound on the docks for bluefish catches.

Japanese imports of fresh bluefin tuna worldwide increased from 957 tons in 1984 to 5,235 tons in 1993. The price peaked in 1990 at $34 per kilogram when a typical 350 pound fish sold for around $10,000. As of 2008, bluefin was selling for $23 a kilogram. Higher prices are charged for really high quality fish.

Selling Blue Fin Tuna in Japan

magaro at the fish auction at Tsukiji
The main inner market tuna auction at Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo begins at 5:30am every day (except Sunday, holidays and two Wednesdays a month) and is usually over within 30 minutes. There are restriction on how close visitors can get to the action.

About 3,000 frozen blue fin tuna are sold every day, with some fetching prices of $10,000 or more. The fish are numbered and displayed on the floor of a vast tuna shed. Before the auction the bidders cut off small pieces of dark red meat from the fish and examine it for color, texture and fat and oil content and make notes on scraps of paper. Oily fish are worth more than dry ones. Cuts from the stomach are examined for marbling and fat. The more marbling and more the fat the more valuable the fish is.

The fish are numbered and the bidders use hand gestures to make their bids which the auctioneers recognize with sounds that resemble barks. Masami Eguchi, a tuna auctioneer sells around 200 fish in a half an hour (one every nine seconds). "I have to recognize the highest bidder instantly," he told National Geographic. "No delays are allowed. There are dozens of auctioneers. Each one has his own chant, his own rhythm. You have to pick a style that works for you and your buyers. And you have to work fast." Other fish are sold in auctions with many of the bids taking place with hand gestures concealed under towels. It is important that the fish stay fresh so everything is done at a rapid pace while most people are asleep.

The tuna auction begins around 5:00am. Describing it, Kathyrn Tolbert wrote in the Washington Post, “the fish were laid out in neat rows on the floor of the chilly warehouse, giving off a faint frozen mist under the fluorescent lighting...Men in work shirts and rubber boots bent over the solid carcasses, inspecting them by lifting a three-inch flap of skin that had been neatly cut open on each one, peering at the cut-off tail end with flashlights. The weight of each tuna was written in kilograms.”

“A cowbell rang, and the auctioneer launched into the rhythmic chanting that marks this ritual, moving slowly through the rooms flanked by several men with notepads as they buyers hovered near their choices and made finger signals...the tuna were being sold in groups of six or seven at a time.”

After tuna is purchased it is sliced in half with a maguro-bocho, a five-foot tuna knife that resembles a samurai sword and cut into smaller pieces are sold to other buyers, restaurants, supermarkets and retailers. The knives are made by fusing iron and steel bars together at 900 degrees F under a power hammer and a then ground in flurry of sparks. Professional knifemakers say they one in three are rejects.

Around 3:00am vehicles begin bringing in fresh and frozen fish, much of which is already sold by 4:30am. Workers take a lunch break around sunrise and unwind with a dinner and beer around 8:30 in the morning. Intermediate wholesalers are very busy between 6:00am and 9:00. Larch hunks of frozen tuna are cut into pieces with saws and adzes and fish and seafood of all kinds is boxed and prepared for deliveries. By 10:30am the activity has subsided, stalls are empty and the floors are being hosed down. The market closes around noon.

Bluefin tuna worth over a $150,000 have been sold at Tsukiji. In 2001, a 202-kilogram tuna caught in Tsugaru Straight near Omanachi I Aomori Prefecture sold for a whopping $173,600 or about $800 a kilogram.

In recent years prices have come down. Bluefin tuna was selling for ¥3,000 a kilogram in 2008, compared to ¥4,500 a kilogram in 1989.

More and more the amount bluefin tuna available on a given day is unreliable and buyers are relying more and more on large commercial freezers to store supplies so they don’t run out. Tuna frozen with the special “flash” method can be kept for up to a year with no perceivable change in taste.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Yomiuri Shimbun, The Guardian, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated January 2012

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