Sashimi Grade Tuna—Why Bother?



Posted on 09 August 2013  | 
Tuna eyes sold at the wet market. Philippines
© Jose Ingles / WWF Coral Triangle ProgramEnlarge
Improving the quality of tuna is one of the priority goals in our two fishery improvement sites.

With Grade A accounting for only 20% of the total volume of tuna landed, our goal is to raise this to 70%. This would translate to a vast increase in the value of tuna, minimize wastage, and benefit fishers all the way to the processors.

This is our plan. This is the most logical thing to do to help minimize waste and improve the value chain, benefiting all players in the supply chain.

Tuna delivered to fish brokers belong to four categories: Grades A, B, C, and Reject. Processors buy only Grades A and B from fish brokers and Grade C and Rejects are delivered to wet markets in nearby cities.

But why are processors in general, and likewise local fish brokers and distributors in particular—who are in best position to demand higher quality tuna from their buyers on site—lukewarm to the idea of increasing the number of higher quality grade tuna?

And why would many of the fish brokers continue to buy straight (no grading) from fishers?

Here is what I found out:

Tuna that end up in domestic markets (Grade C and Rejects) have the same value as those of Grade A and B tuna destined for further processing and export. This is because for secondary traders and fish market sellers, local prices of loins of Grade C and Rejects are higher, if not at the same level, as those of Grades A and B that are exported.

In addition to loins, waste parts are sold as specialty products for even higher value. Seafood restaurants sell tuna tail (normally rejected due to high lactic acid content), tuna belly, testis, ovary filled with eggs, tuna jaws, and eyes at ridiculously high prices. Other parts such as bones, gills, skin and intestines are also bought and consumed. Only the stiff part of the tail and fins end up as real waste.

So processors and buyers really do not mind buying and trading low quality tuna because they get more out of each tuna than the pricey Grade A and B.

As one processor puts it, the real value of tuna does NOT come only from the loins but also from the waste stream that accounts for 50-60% of their total income from each tuna. Getting low grade tuna for a much cheaper price and not spending for added costs associated with exporting the products, gives traders a much better margin. This is our challenge.

How do we solve this and change the practice? Personally, I think we need to:

1. Make local tuna consumers aware of the quality and taste of high-grade tuna and pay a premium for it. Local consumers are not quality sensitive, but rather, price sensitive. Given that tuna prices do not vary as suppliers simply agree on one set of price, the consumers are left without a choice.

2. Advocate for the government to have a policy on a minimum standard for health and sanitation of tuna for domestic consumption. This will drive tuna brokers to buy only good quality tuna whether destined for export or local markets. Such policy will provide the basis for pricing tuna and an incentive for tuna fishers to pay attention to quality. This means that improved quality of tuna catch will translate to direct benefits for fishers.

3. Work towards a policy that requires trading of tuna based on quality in order for fishers to directly benefit from catching higher grade tuna. Again, given the constraints of very small vessels used in fishing, we need to rethink of an entirely new way of fishing. I will tackle this on my next blog entry.

Posted by Jose Ingles (Jingles)
Tuna eyes sold at the wet market. Philippines
© Jose Ingles / WWF Coral Triangle Program Enlarge
Tuna black meat sold at the wet market. Philippines
© Jose Ingles / WWF Coral Triangle Program Enlarge
Grade C tuna sold in the supermarket. Philippines
© Jose Ingles / WWF Coral Triangle Program Enlarge

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