Breaking Down Bluefin: The Sustainability and Spectacle of Tuna Butchering

Austin's Otoko restaurant invited a crowd to watch their chef butcher a whole tuna. We saw, we ate, we wondered if we should feel guilty.

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Nov 28 2016, 11:00pm

Ask Yoshi Okai what he thinks of conventionally sourced bluefin tuna and there's no hesitation.

"It's bullshit!"

He doesn't just say the words—it's like somebody stabbed him and his answer squirts out like blood. The Kyoto-born chef and former punk rock singer is the mastermind behind Otoko, a ticketed 12-seat kaiseki restaurant in Austin, Texas. He speaks in excited bursts with a thick accent, but there's no mistaking his opinions on the ocean's most endangered delicacy.

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The fish is never frozen; it arrives 36 hours after catch packed in a heavy layer of ice. All photos by the author.

Minutes later, Yoshi hoists a 130-pound bluefin onto Otoko's dining counter and severs its head with a hacksaw. He guzzles Topo Chico soda water and grins ear to ear. An invite-only crowd of 50 Austinites jostle for space, thrusting their smartphones in the air and Instagramming the fuck out of the massive fish.

The entire event has the energy of a rock show. Vintage punk blares on the speakers, Yoshi swaggers behind the counter like a mix of Mick Jagger and a Batman villain, twirling his knife, then precisely striking the heavily marbled belly meat. He learned the trade at iconic Austin sushi restaurant Uchi, where he was taught finesse over power. Aside from the initial hacksawing, the knife's sharpness should do all the work. "Don't use too much power. Just follow the bones, otherwise you will totally mess up and smash the meat and cut through the bones—no bueno," says Yoshi.

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The face of the bluefin will eventually be crafted into a plate.

"No bueno" is also an accurate summary of the ocean's bluefin population. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration lists the current number of spawning females at 4 percent of what it should be. There's a movement to grant the fish endangered status in the US, but even a domestic ban wouldn't put a dent in demand for the prized fish.

The first auction of the year at Tokyo's famed Tsukiji fish market has become a marker of the bluefin's importance. Bidding wars erupt between sushi proprietors, driving the price exponentially past market value. In 2013, the winner paid $1.76 million for a 489-pound tuna, a purchase that was equal parts marketing ploy and industry dick-swinging. Prices in years since have dropped, but 2016's first fish still sold for an exorbitant $118,000.

Otoko doesn't buy from Tsukiji, but rather gets the nice price from Japanese fishery Dainichi. Purchasing whole, unbutchered fish means a deep discount, with final costs amounting to $26 per pound instead of $50 or $60. But what's more important than margins is the sustainability. For nearly a decade Dainichi has raised sustainable bluefin hatched from eggs bred by Osaka-based Kindai University.

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"Don't use too much power. Just follow the bones," says Yoshi Okai.

Hatchlings spawn as small as three millimeters and grow much more rapidly than most other fish. They arrive at Dainichi weighing roughly one pound and are raised in runs netted against the currents of the Uwa Sea. In the wild, bluefin migrate across oceans, but here the powerful currents act as a natural treadmill.

"We try to keep the number of fish per pen low; you don't want to have overcrowding. In the pens they're just swimming in circles, but they seem pretty content on doing that," says Boyd Way, foreign trade officer of Dainichi.

Once they reach four years old, the bluefin are caught hook and line. Harvest happens in winter because colder waters ensure an optimal fat breakdown: 20 percent fatty otoro, 40 percent slightly leaner chutoro, and 40 percent akami loin meat. Once pulled from the water, the fish are immediately stunned with a cattle prod, paralyzing them so the stress of capture doesn't spoil the meat. Then the spinal cord is removed to trick the fish's body from entering rigor mortis and decaying, a common occurrence in poorly processed fish. (Frayed filet edges are a telltale sign.)

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The guts are already removed in order to stall the decaying process.

The one part of the operation that isn't sustainable is their diet. Salmon farmers have developed protein-rich formulas that cut the feed to harvest ratio to under 1:1, but scientists haven't been able to curtail tuna's carnivorous nature. Dainichi estimates they currently feed their bluefin 15 pounds of bait for each pound of fish harvested.

"We've found that there are formulated diets out there, but once the water temperature drops, the feed response drops as well. Then if you switch them onto anchovies or bait fish, it's kind of like giving smack to a junkie," says Way. "They don't want to switch back to formulated feeds—they're carnivorous, so they just want to eat more fish."

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Yoshi proudly serves only sustainably raised bluefin in his restaurant.

The second issue with bluefin farming is the survival rate. Currently Kindai averages a 5-percent chance that spawned eggs will grow to full adult maturity. Although bluefin can live up to 26 years, weigh nearly 1,000 pounds, and grow to ten feet in length, Dainichi harvests theirs at 125 pounds. Any larger and the risk of a fish dying is too heavy of a financial loss, plus the size becomes unmanageable to harvest efficiently.

So in the immortal words of Chief Martin Brody, you'd need a bigger boat, and a more structurally sound sushi counter. Even though the bluefin at Otoko isn't huge by tuna standards, it's still impressive. Most people in the crowd at Otoko have never seen such a large fish out of water, let alone tasted it within 36 hours after catch.

Once Yoshi saws off the head, he pulls out a pair of ice packs from inside the fish and the crowd's eyes pop in surprise, a moment that Way equates to a Christmas morning unwrapping. The bluefin is then processed with surgical precision, but the vibe is more Scrubs than Grey's Anatomy. There's a sense of pure respect for the product, with an undercurrent of irreverence marked by sight gags involving a toy whale.

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The tuna is bred for a meat breakdown of 20 percent otoro, 40 percent chutoro, and 40 percent akami.

About halfway through the 45-minute butchering session, little serving boats of bluefin sashimi circulate through the crowd. When one comes in my direction, my hands are full with a camera and a perfect whiskey cocktail from neighboring bar Watertrade.

The indulgence of the experience wasn't lost on me. I've written about Otoko twice now, but the hefty $150 ticketed reservation just isn't in my budget. It's an aspirational restaurant experience, one that's out of reach of most of the attending "influencers." But here we are, gawking behind the scenes at a nearly endangered fish split down the middle, thousands of dollars worth of belly spread-eagle for Snapchat.

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The bluefin will be featured on the menu as sashimi and more creative dishes like tuna tartare.

Given that vague pornographic undercurrent, you'd think people would hoard these little boats of priceless sashimi, but everyone politely puffs and passes. One of my favorite things about sushi is that it's composed as a single bite. The brain simply requires time to process flavor this intense. With meat so delicious it gives brain freezes, it's no wonder bluefin fishermen ignore catch quotas and chefs will drop seven figures for bragging rights.

So did the bite live up to the hype? In short, yes. Bluefin is undeniably the epitome of tuna, which is arguably the epitome of sushi, but when eaten this fresh it almost tastes like something entirely different. It's both cleaner and richer, with a whisper of salt as it hits your tongue and a burst of fat so singularly succulent that it defies description. The fish tastes like the darkest, quietest, most mysterious corner of the ocean, even if it wasn't born there.