Culinary Culture vs Tuna Extinction: A Deterministic Dilemma

Environmental determinism is the notion that the natural environment of a certain place predisposes societies and cultures towards particular forms of development. The connection between a place’s natural environment and the set of cultural practices that stem from it is incredibly complex. With so many variables affecting how cultural practices (in this case culinary practices) are determined, it can be frustrating to wrap one’s head around the actual ramifications of environmental determinism. Such was the case for me with regards to understanding patterns of seafood (particularly tuna) consumption in Japan. In Japan, there is deep rooted cultural and culinary appreciation for seafood consumption. This makes sense as the ocean is Japan’s greatest natural resource and fishing is an age old practice there. Also, with the advent of so many dishes that rely on high quality fish, like sushi, over fishing has become a major negative externality that stems from demand for seafood. Although I always knew over fishing was a serious issue stemming from the widespread fish consumption, I had no idea of the true extent of which blue fin and yellow fin tuna are quickly becoming eradicated from the world’s oceans. Over 96% of tuna populations have been wiped out since the 1970s and that is of how many were present at that time – far less than how many we began with. With environmental determinism in mind, I did some qualitative analysis on images I found regarding tuna consumption. One image that stood out in particular displayed the owner of a major sushi restaurant chain wielding a knife and smiling proudly while standing over a huge blue fin tuna. That image is shown below:

The image above depicts Kiyoshi Kimura, president of restaurant chain, Suchi-Zanmai, posing with a 200 kg blue fin tuna that sold for $117,000 USD. Four other restaurant employees stand behind them, all look pleased but Kiyoshi looks the most excited. Since this tuna was the first of its kind sold in the year, and since food made available for the first time in the year is considered good luck in Japan, this tuna was sold considerably above market value. Kiyoshi is standing proudly above the tuna wielding a large knife (or sword) that could be used to skin or slice the fish. This image depicts the deep cultural relationship the Japanese have with seafood, particularly tuna. This can be seen in how prideful they look standing next to the fish. By losing tuna, the Japanese would not only lose a significant source of food but also a source of cultural pride.

Such is the dilemma that has surfaced over the course of this project. How can one preserve such deep rooted cultural culinary traditions while simultaneously considering dwindling fish populations? It seems impossible. Japanese culinary culture is so strong and people are incredibly passionate about their tuna, about their seafood. However, once tuna goes extinct and there are no other fish to turn to, some drastic adjustments will have to be made. Consumption of other animal protein like chicken, pork, and steak are already increasing due to to rising seafood prices from fish scarcity. One can only hope that Japanese culinary culture can persist and evolve with the inevitable changes happening in the tuna industry.

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