With the price of a sashimi grade tuna at the General Santos City fishing port complex rising above Php420 (US$10) per kilo,  more and more Filipinos are becoming strangers to the succulent and mouth-watering yellowfin tuna that their country is famous for.

When these tunas eventually end up in posh Japanese restaurants abroad, they command a hefty price.  The record price for the more pricey bluefin tuna was US$396,700 for a 754 pound fish.  But in a recent auction in Tokyo, a single tuna reportedly fetched $736,000 or roughly $1,240 per pound.

Fresh chilled tuna are in such high demand in Japan that even the Manila grade tunas are being boxed up and flown to Narita airport.

Two or three years ago, no honest-to-goodness tuna trader would even dare entertain such thoughts.

But the times they are a changing, to paraphrase Bob Dylan.

John Heitz, who has been trading fresh chilled tuna since the ’80s, said the ‘abnormal prices’ of tuna are driving local traders out of the market but is giving local tuna fishers a huge bonanza.

Daghan lipay nga mga (A lot of happy) local fishermen, which is good,” Heitz commented.  But he said traders like him whose principal market is the US are increasingly finding it hard to compete with the Japanese market.

Japan consumes more than 80 percent of the world’s supply of fresh chilled yellowfin tuna.

Headless and US bound yellowfin tuna. Pic: Edwin Espejo.

Heitz can just watch in awe and disbelief when a top Japanese henchman for a local tuna processor is now personally picking off tuna at Market 1 of the General Santos City Fish Port Complex.

Ambot giunsa nila na pagbligya didto sa (I do not know how they are able to sell that in) Japan,” the former American Peace Corps volunteer said.  Heitz is married to Filipina Muslim and his Cebuano dialect sounds as if he was born into it.

Grading the tuna

Fresh yellowfin tuna are basically classified into four quality grades.

On top are the sashimi grade tunas (called Ulo – head – in local parlance) which are flown out straight from the General Santos City airport to either Osaka or Narita in Japan or Seattle or LA in the US following a brief transfer stopover in Manila.  They are marked by their deep-red color with higher fat content. (Do not be fooled by that pink bright color of tuna loins sold at your local deli store.  Chances are they have undergone the smoke-filter process which explains their color). Sashimi grade tunas are further classified into three sub-grades with prices separated by Php10 (USD0.23).

Next in line are the Manila grade tunas, the ones served at posh Manila hotels.

Then Davao grades before General Santos City finally gets whatever leftovers there are.  These, leftovers, mind you, can still cost, per kilo, more than a half-day’s pay for a minimum wage earner in General Santos.  Minimum wage in the city is pegged at Php285 (US$6.60) per day.

Gone are the days when mature yellowfin tuna are sold for Php0.50 per kilo (USD0.011) in the old filthy ‘landing fish’ area across the General Santos City public market (now site of the water treatment plant).  Or when they were just buried on the shores because there were no cold storage and processing plants yet.

No idea

In an article that appeared in www.atuna.com, restaurant owners in the US said they have no idea why prices of fresh tuna have gone up so wildly.

“From I’ve been told, it’s kind of a perfect storm [of tuna deficiency],” said BJ’s Kitchen Manager Michael Fritz of Maryland, USA.

Others blamed it to the ongoing ban on tuna fishing in two pockets of seas in the Western Pacific region.  The Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission has been imposing a ban on purse-seine tuna fishing.

According to WCPFC, “pocket 1 covers Palau, Micronesia, Papua New Guinea, and Indonesia, areas closest to the Philippines where local tuna fishing companies frequently operate.  Pocket 2 is bounded by the countries of Solomon Islands, Fiji, Tuvalu, Nauru, Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Papua New Guinea and parts of Kiribati.”

The ban apparently has caught fire, driving many suppliers to demand higher prices.

Over the years, health-conscious diners have developed the fine taste of fresh-chilled tuna, said to be rich in Omega 3 fatty acids, vital for normal metabolism.

Tuna-less sushi. Pic: Edwin Espejo.

As a result of the ban, more importers have been buying frozen tuna but the US government has reportedly been cracking down on imported frozen tuna because of alleged contamination issues.

“Years past, there’s been a lot of frozen tuna steaks, but apparently the FDA has been cracking down on them, I guess that’s putting a lot more pressure on the fresh market,” disclosed Melvin Pruitt of United Shellfish in Gransonville, Md. “They’ve been checking every container [of fish].” (http://www.atuna.com/apps/public/ViewArticle.asp?ID=11204)

Consequently, demand for fresh chilled tuna increased.  Local catches in General Santos however has been in steady decline.

The Japanese market however has not wavered a bit.  They are willing to pay the price of fresh tuna in their sushi and their sashimi.

The Filipinos, meanwhile, are now increasing their poultry and pork diet because of the prohibitive prices of fish.  Talk about a boon for one is another’s bane.