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It’s 8am at the Katsuura Port fish market, little more than a concrete floored tin shed flanking an azure blue sea on Japan’s Kii Peninsula. Men, sporting yellow gumboots and shiny hooks, move between rows of silvery blue fish, cutting off their tails and then holding the flesh to the light to scrutinise the fat ratio; fundamental for perfect sashimi.
They are buyers from the markets of Osaka and Kyoto, here to get their hands on the best fish available that day. A wooden peak nosed boat, white and trimmed with royal blue, has just docked at the far end of the shed. The boat has been at sea for two weeks and is disgorging its catch into the market; the fish, mainly yellowfin tuna weighing around 150 kg, take two men each to haul off the boat’s ramps and onto the auction floor. Kaatsura Port fish market is the premium tuna auction in Japan. Sales has already been underway for an hour- it starts at 7am sharp each morning- with bids for the best fish scribbled on wooden pegs and held at a central counter. When the auction ends, the fish will be packed in ice and driven to Osaka and Kyoto where by the end of the day they will reappear on restaurant dinner menus. Yellowfin is in season; glassy eyed with small but fierce mouths revealing perfect lines of jagged white teeth, they are easily identified by the serrated ridge of a sunflower yellow running deftly across their spine. Each is around seven or eight years of age; and, stretching a meter or more, will bring around 300,000 Japanese Yen, or USD$2700, depending on the quality of the meat.
There are a few Pacific bluefin up for auction too. The highly prized but highly contentious fish with a royal blue set of fins sit in a special corner for the big spenders; prized specimens regularly fetch several hundreds of thousands of dollars. The Pacific bluefin’s cousins - the Atlantic and Southern species, both large predator fish that can weigh up to 600 and 300 kilograms respectively, both sit on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) endangered list due to rampant overfishing and slow reproductive cycles. Although a 2013 report states that the Pacific bluefin has suffered a 96% decline in stocks over the past 50 years, its short lifespan has kept it in murkily shallow water, although most ocean watch groups put it on the avoid list. All tuna sold at Katsuura Port fish market are strictly monitored for age and size. Boats supplying to the market are only permitted to use lines, not nets, and a maximum of two weeks at sea to catch 15 tonne at a time. Fishermen keep the fish stored in saline water cooled to 1 degree Celsius on board before getting it to market.
Mr Ichiro Maruyama has worked at the Katsuura Port fish market for 33 years and is now its managing director. In those years fish stocks have halved, he tells me, and it’s a growing concern they will dry up altogether. Each summer the fishermen of Katsuura have to travel further and further out into international waters to fill their quotas. Mr Maruyama knows many who have given up the trade altogether, no longer able to able to survive off mediocre catches. He cites unscrupulous practices by neighbouring countries, which only recently started fishing for tuna and use bigger boats fitted with trawlers and nets, for the decline in fish stocks. Later that day I stop by a local restaurant serving the tuna hauled in that morning.
Katsuura is famous for its tuna cutlets; a two bite sized piece of fish taken from the belly of the fish, smothered in breadcrumbs, deep fried and served with a citrus ponzu sauce mixed with soy and smashed radish. I am told it’s impossible to find this dish anywhere else in Japan; certainly it could never be found quite as fresh.