Kiyoshi Kimura, owner of the Tokyo-based restaurant chain Sushi Zanmai, recently paid 1.76 million dollars for a very nice looking 488-pound bluefin tuna. That's an average of about $3,600 per pound -- a mere $225 per ounce.
An ounce of raw bluefin tuna is a small firm glistening pink thing. It's composed mostly of water, a few fatty acids, and some proteins. If you're the lucky diner, hopefully it will be short on mercury and PCBs. Pop it in your mouth. Chew it ever-so slightly. Savor the flavor and thought of the money you just blew. Swallow. It's gone. Have another?
In reality, the tuna won't fetch anything near Mr. Kimura's record price per ounce on the open market, not even close. The drop-jaw sale price is mostly a matter of national pride, marketing, and good feelings, explained Mr. Kimura as he cut up the fish, holding up its torpedo-like, silver head to a sea of flashing cameras.
Mr. Kimura is no stranger to record tuna prices. He also bought last year's first tuna, too, setting the previous record. This year he bested himself by quite a bit actually, handing over three times more in a fierce bidding war with the owner of a Hong Kong-based sushi chain.
The Associated Press reported that Kimura admitted "the price was a bit high," but that he wanted to "encourage" Japan.
That's all well and good. What Mr. Kimura does with his money is his business, but if you move past the so-called fish "traditions," the irrational "markets," and you drill down through the aggression and power plays surrounding the auctions, sale, and consumption of tuna, you will find another kind of soft pink flesh: the human brain. Here is where we find the dopaminergic reward system -- also known as the addiction center -- that is contributing to the behaviors that are extirpating irreplaceable ocean wildlife such as the bluefin tuna.
Why are delicacies such as boiled shark fins, sea turtle eggs, and cubes of quivering tuna belly as addictive as cocaine to some people, yet so repulsive to others? Experts can -- and have -- asked the same questions about the fast foods, fructose, and chocolate that have so many of our young people overweight, threatening our national health in the process.
So, why not extend this heady conversation into fish markets and high-end seafood restaurants? After all, isn't the future of our ocean, like our national health, on the line here? Conservation is really about human behavior, making it another province of neuroscience, though rarely will you hear the neuro- prefix used at enviro and fishery gatherings. When it all boils down, it is the human brain -- in all its wonderful complexity -- that is at the heart of these raw displays of power, be they for good or ill.
The fact that neuroscience is missing from these venues is rapidly changing, however. A group of ocean experts will be joined by leading neuroscientists at a summit called "BLUEMIND 3: Last Child In The Water" on Block Island in May 2013. They will discuss burning, ocean-related questions at the fascinating intersection of water and the brain. They'll learn about "your brain on bluefin tuna" with chef Barton Seaver, the role of water play in childhood cognitive development with ocean explorer (and new mom) Celine Cousteau, and the neurolinguistics of ocean language with former U.S. poet laureate Billy Collins, among many, many other topics.
We call this hybrid field neuroconservation. The insights will certainly be juicy and perhaps even useful in our efforts to live healthier more eco-conscious lives on this small blue planet of ours.
So, next time you belly up to the sushi bar, consider what you're really buying. It just may be nothing more than your very own dopamine costing you those hard earned bucks.