The Dangerous World of Black Market Tuna

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Francisco Bonilla / Reuters

The world of sought-after underground commodities including diamonds, precious metals and illegal drugs now has another contraband member: black market tuna.

That’s right the delicious fish, rich in iron and omega-3 oil, has entered the clandestine world of illicit economics, and for a long time, there’s been something fishy going on.  Now, this doesn’t mean you should immediately throw out the sandwich you were going to have for lunch on rye bread with a pickle. But you sushi eaters really need to think twice before you pick up the chopsticks.

According to a study done by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, fishermen in 10 nations violated set quotas in order to satisfy the world’s lascivious lust for sushi. The corruption is particularly notable in France, where the tuna industry and the Ministry of Agriculture conspired to fix catch numbers in harvesting the desired Eastern Atlantic Bluefin tuna, the probe says.

(See photos from the tuna trade.)

The ICIJ noted a black market for that particular species of tuna grew to be worth $400 million between 1998 and 2007. The problem is the population of the migratory fish is nearly endangered and has suffered from gross overfishing in recent years.  The International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas said the numbers have dropped by almost 75% over the past 40 years, with half of that number in the past ten. The biggest culprit, however is Japan, which has the biggest demand for the fish. and developed its taste in the 1980s for the meat from its belly. Believe it or not, a large bluefin can capture $100,000 at market, the study says.

(See TIME’s video on the trouble with tuna.)

The ICIJ report traces a huge international web of corruption, negligence and illegal activity in a field most people take for granted, even tangling fishermen who were out to make a fast buck. “Everyone cheated,”said Roger Del Ponte, a bluefin fishing boat captain under investigation. “There were rules, but we didn’t follow them.”