Guest Book Review - the Sushi Economy

Sushi - By ulterior epicure

The Sushi Economy, Globalization and the making of a modern delicacy.

Sasha Issenberg (2007)  

Reviewed by Marc C. Bosse 

The year is 1970 in Prince Edward Island.  After struggling for many hours you have hauled in a prize fish; a 140kg Atlantic blue-fin tuna.  After posing for the ritual trophy photograph on the wharf you bid the charter captain good day and more often than not never see the fish again.   

If it was convenient the large blue-fin will be brought to a cannery where it would be purchased for cents on the kilogram.  If it was not convenient a local earth moving contractor will likely bury it in the landfill.  In all likelihood little, if any, of the tuna would ever be eaten. 

In 1972 an aeroplane freighted PEI bluefin tuna sold for 40 dollars per kilogram at the Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo.  This rapid change in value was a result in the globalization of trade and changes in Japanese taste since the end of World War II. 

The book, The Sushi Economy, discusses the development of taste and globalizing aspects of the demand for tuna in the larger context of the growing demand for sushi across many parts of the globe. 

What most people consider ‘sushi’ is a development of popular 19th century Tokyo street food.  Only after the 1923 earthquake did the Tokyo, and hence modern, view of sushi spread greatly across Japan and eventually supplant the regional tastes. 

At this time tuna was a modest fish on the hierarchy of sushi.  Choice cuts of tuna by modern reckoning were simply ghastly (the toro cuts), the Japanese consigned the fattier parts of the fish to cat food.   

After World War II and the inculcation of American tastes in meat and dining the Japanese began to associate rich, fattier, cuts with luxury.  As a result the demand for tuna began to rise.  Not tuna in general, but large tuna, those that possessed the greatest amounts of toro.  Fat became popular, and as the Japanese economy grew the demand grew. 

By the early 1970’s the Japanese had largely decimated the local stocks of prime tuna and desired more.  At this point in time Japan Airways Limited had a large cargo deficit, they shipped cargo from Japan, but had little air freight back to Japan.  A missive at this time to a JAL rep in Vancouver requested a search for high value freight to fill the hold.  In time this led him to the shores of Prince Edward Island and tuna. 

Over the next few years much of the tuna fishery of the North American coast was brought into the service of the Tsukiji fish market.  Tuna would be caught, flash frozen, and receive priority shipping to Japan for auction at Tsukiki.  By the mid 1980’s a prime fish could easily reach 100 dollars per kilogram.  Exceptional fishes of the time (1980’s) and recent years (2000’s) reached as much as 250$/kg for a 350kg tuna.   A fish caught late on Saturday would more often than not be available to eat by Tuesday afternoon in Tokyo. 

As the years went by tuna stocks were increasingly depleted in the water of the Atlantic, Australia, and the Mediterranean by local and large Japanese long line fishing vessels.   

Then an Aussie had an inspired moment; let us ranch tuna. 

Each kg of weight gained by a ranched tuna cost 20$/kg.  By the late 1990’s and to present the typical sale price for ranched tuna was on the order of 20$/kg.  So how do they make money? 

They caught young tuna, typically less than 20 to 30kg, which could be done for a few dollars a kilogram and put them in pens.  Since a small tuna had little toro they were not worth much.  So the ranchers played a zero sum game to fatten them up to 60kg where they would sell for a reasonable price.  All of the profit though was from the 20 to 30kg that nature provided when caught. 

Since the development of tuna ranching ranches have spread across much of the world where it is practical.  The most common regions are the north of Australia and the Mediterranean.  Whereas the shores of Australia are relatively remote a rigourous quota, and vigourous policing, has ensured that stocks are ‘theoretically’ not being depleted.   

However, the Mediterranean now has the problem of tuna piracy. 

Being bounded by many nations the fishing regulations and policing of the Mediterranean are Byzantine in the extreme.  A consequence of this is piracy, the illegal fishing of tuna across the Mediterranean for farming and eventual shipping to Japan. 

To an extent Japan is aware of this but also oblivious.  Recently when announced on the news that Turkey was exporting illegal tuna many store chains announced that they would not longer purchase Turkish tuna as they were exporting above their quota.   

However, tuna laundering is starting to occur. 

In Japan the food product must be listed from its country of origin.  Hence a high value tuna will likely make its way though conventional channels to Tsukiji, or one of the other fish markets.  If it is to be laundered China is now the popular choice.  Tuna, of exceptional or pathetic quality is sent to be butchered and processed in China and then re-exported to Japan; where it is labelled as “Product of the People’s Republic of China”.   

No origin, no provenance.  


I am very partial to tuna.  The only other sushi topping I am as partial to is unagi. 

As a result of this, and for brevity I decided to follow the tuna track of the book that I reviewed.  As a courtesy, and to be broad, I shall also provide a quite summary of the other tracks of the book which are wound into the discussion of tuna. 

The Fish Business:  How does Tsukiji work as well as the other fish markets.  Common business practices.   

Sushi in the Americas:  Examines the pre-WWII tastes of the Japanese population and subsequent development after WWII.  [Sushi was a post-WWII development / And California rolls used to be made with King Crab, not Pollock]  Considers Japanese chefs as they move to the Americas; examines trainees some of the Japanese chefs as they operate and establish themselves as Gaijin sushi chefs in America. 

Historical context of sushi:  The origins of sushi in Japan.  Regional preferences, format of delivery and development with time. 

Marc. C. Bossé

November 15, 2007

The Sushi Economy was borrowed from the New Westminster Public Library

Photo courtesy of ulterior epicure @ flickr, under a creative commons license