I-Team: Sushi Restaurant Pulls Bluefin Tuna from the Menu

Published 09/30 2010 01:23PM

Updated 09/30 2010 06:43PM

LAS VEGAS -- Chef Oscar Toro wants his diners to try new things, not just for their own enjoyment, but for the good of the planet. His employer, the wildly popular Sushi Samba restaurant at Palazzo, has just taken one of its most popular, and most expensive, dishes off the menu.

The "No Blue icon in menus means no bluefin tuna.

"We would go through 300 to 400 pounds of tuna a week -- probably 500 pounds of tuna. So by cutting that out right away, that's a significant amount. That's probably one tuna a week," said Toro.

The Sushi Samba chain is following the example of another Las Vegas seafood chef, Rick Moonen, a leader of the sustainable seafood movement. Moonen serves fish species that are abundant, avoiding those in trouble, and no fish in the world is in more trouble than the bluefin.

The amazing warm-blooded speedster is the fastest fish in the ocean, but not fast enough to escape the fleets that have hunted it to the brink of extinction. A typical adult can weigh 500 pounds, worth $75,000 wholesale and a lot more when retailed as sushi.

As over-fishing makes them more rare, their dollar value climbs.

"I call it the economics of extinction," said Paul Watson with the Sea Shepherds.

Captain Watson is known world-wide for his fight to save whales, dolphins and other species by confronting illegal fishing fleets on the high seas. He says extinction of the bluefin isn't an unfortunate accident, it is being done on purpose.

The Japanese fishing fleet and Mitsubishi Corporation, which have resisted calls for a moratorium on bluefin harvests just as they have continued to hunt down whales, are stockpiling tuna in gigantic refrigerated warehouses.

"They already have a four-year supply. They're looking for a 10 to 15 year supply. The more bluefin they stockpile in warehouses, the less there are in the wild, the more valuable they become," said Watson. "If you wipe them out completely, then you would have a million dollar fish. So Mitsubishi stands to make billions of dollars if they can drive the species into extinction. The only bluefin available would be their 10 year supply in the warehouses."

The Japanese may be the driving force behind what is happening to bluefin, but sushi lovers in places like Las Vegas are just as culpable. Every order of bluefin tuna pushes the fish closer to the edge.

Companies like Sushi Samba have taken a stand, even though it will likely cost them plenty.

"We are a large group. We do a lot of business -- tons of customers -- but we have said no," said Chef Toro.

Public response has been overwhelmingly positive, Toro says. But several other Las Vegas restaurants continue to sell bluefin, including Nobu at the Hard Rock, Koi at Planet Hollywood and Yellowtail at Bellagio.

A home delivery company with the unfortunate name Blue Fin Sushi is still found online, though its menu has been pulled.

Captain Watson says the only way to get them to stop is for customers to take a stand. Watson thinks Las Vegas is the perfect place to start the movement.

"Las Vegas is the best place to send a signal to the world to make a difference. If we can stop it in Las Vegas, we can stop it anywhere," he said. "I do know one thing though: if the fish disappear and the oceans die, then we die. That's a message that might sound radical but it's a truism."

The Japanese fishing industry has told American authorities that we have no right to tell their culture what they can or can't eat. The American view is that the oceans belong to everyone, not just to the Japanese, and that eating a species into extinction is greedy and stupid.

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