Seafood Watch

Chefs Fish For Substitutes As Tuna Prices Soar

Tuna in a supermarket in Japan.
Tuna in a supermarket in Japan. Photo: David Pursehouse via Flickr

Yellowtail tuna, the most popular tuna on fine dining restaurant menus, has shot up in price in the last couple of weeks as catches have declined, leaving fish distributors and chefs scrambling to either substitute other species of fish or decide between absorbing or passing on the increases. “We’re paying $6 a pound more for loin than we were on Monday of last week,” says Carl Galvan, fishmonger for Chicago and Las Vegas-based Supreme Lobster. “The kind of loin that was in the $14 a pound range last week is up to $20 now.” The reason, Galvan says, starts in Japan.

Galvan says that catches have been smaller and fewer in recent weeks— “And when Japan feels that kind of pressure, they buy,” he says. “I know what my customers will pay in Chicago, and not many of them can put out a $40 plate of tuna. But the Japanese will pay anything.”

The squeeze is felt at the main Hawaiian market he buys from. “I call in what I want to buy and they tell me it doesn’t exist. They say only three boats came in. And because their season is about to end and there’s so much demand, they’re buying it from other places. They’ve gone from being a seller to being a net buyer, which drives the price up.”

Galvan says the only thing distributors can do is encourage their customers to try other fish. “We’re offering marlin, sword, mahi,” he says. “There’s this Hawaiian tombo, it’s an albacore tuna that’s insanely gorgeous, like a small 2+ grade yellowfin. Chefs know it’s not yellowfin because the cuts are smaller, but it has similar flesh characteristics.”

Galvan says he doesn’t know when the market will settle back to traditional levels. “This happens every once in a while. I’m hearing different things, but it’s probably going to be like this for the remainder of the year.”

One chef who’s switched from tuna to Hawaiian tombo on Galvan’s advice is Derek Simcik of Atwood Cafe. “Every week, we get our price lists and I saw that it was going up steadily. At the same time, I was having issues getting deliveries,” Simcik says. “And the quality— it was still decent, but I could see that it wasn’t as good as it was a month ago. The flesh wasn’t as red, or there would be the occasional spear gash, or white spots which mean the fish was caught too young. For me, it’s better to just stop using tuna and give the population time to recuperate than to find ourselves in a situation where you can’t get it at all for five years.”

The question is whether customers will feel the same way. “We have an ahi tuna salad on the lunch menu, and we have some customers who have their routine, and they don’t like to hear that we’ve changed it,” Simcik says. “But fortunately we have a lot of people who we can say, we stopped using the tuna for a reason, and it becomes an opportunity to educate them about our commitment to using sustainable fish, and they feel more loyal to us as a result of learning about that.”

For now, Simcik is making a direct substitution of the tombo for yellowtail, but he says his goal as his new fall menu will roll out in the next few weeks is “Not to have anything on there where you’re just making a substitution, but to develop the seafood menu around what’s seasonal and sustainable to begin with. It should be an opportunity to try different things, not a step back.”

Chefs Fish For Substitutes As Tuna Prices Soar