It may be the year of the ox, but if the first auction of the year at Tsukiji fish market is any indication, it might also be the year of bluefin tuna, though not in a positive sense. On the first fish-buying day of the year, a 128-kg fish went for an amazing ¥9.63 million — the highest price paid for a tuna since 2001. The thought of that day’s 730 tunas lined up for bidding may set mouths watering, but the depletion of tuna stocks is an urgent problem of deep concern.

The growing popularity of tuna, especially amid the worldwide boom in sushi, has resulted in serious depletions. The most popular bluefin tuna is threatened from overfishing, and prices for the fish have skyrocketed. Some stocks in the Atlantic are reported down by 90 percent, according to the World Wildlife Fund. As demand for bluefin becomes harder to satisfy, and prices rise, the pressure on bigeye and yellowfish tuna populations has increased. Each delicious bite of any kind of tuna brings all the varieties closer to peril.

Many different commissions regulate tuna fishing in the Atlantic and Pacific regions. However, they have yet to fully agree on specific numbers for catch reductions that scientists say are necessary. Fishing boats from Japan, the European Union, Libya, Turkey and Russia are all reported to be lax about current quotas. Illegal processing and exchanging of fish on the high seas and under-reporting of catches in dock are routine. Organized crime has also become involved in many areas. Enforcement is difficult but not impossible.

Japan has cooperated halfheartedly with most global efforts to regulate ocean fishing of any kind, but agreement on restrictions and enforcement is now urgent. The increasing use of sonar, spotter airplanes, purse-seine and other large-scale nets, as well as other technologies, increase the total catch numbers but drain stocks much too quickly. These practices must be curtailed. Fishing during spawning season has a devastating impact, and should be entirely banned.

Atlantic cod became virtually extinct in the 1990s from overfishing. The same fate may await tuna.

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