Bluefin Blues:

Japan consumes the lion's share of Bluefin tuna, but it has plenty of company in its love of this flavorful fish. The growing popularity of sushi, and the use of sushi-grade tuna in other dishes, is putting tremendous pressure on wild stocks of the prized fish.

Japan -- after years of overfishing a species that is as much sacrament as food -- is feeling the pinch more than any other country.

As of this year and for the next four years, the country's annual fishing quota has been slashed in half for southern bluefin tuna, found in the warm waters of the Southern Hemisphere. And its quota for Atlantic bluefin has been cut by almost a quarter. . . .

Wholesale tuna prices, up about 20 percent in the past year, are so high that Japanese restaurant owners say they cannot pass on the full cost to customers. . . .

Across Japan, quotas are squeezing the supply of sashimi tuna, and soaring prices are reducing demand. In the first quarter of this year, imports fell 24 percent compared with the previous year, according to one recent industry report. Another report says that for all of 2006, household consumption of sashimi tuna fell 20 percent.

Yet as the Japanese eat less sashimi-grade tuna, Americans, Europeans and Chinese are eating more. In the United States, the second-largest market for fresh tuna, imports have continued to rise this year. That, in turn, is driving up demand and prices. It is also putting further pressure on tuna stocks that have been overfished for decades. . . .

Since 1950, the global catch has risen more than tenfold, to more than 4 million tons in 2002, '03 and '04. A report this year by the World Wildlife Fund said that the tuna fishing fleet is now far larger -- in some cases 70 percent larger -- than is needed for a sustainable catch.

The consequences have been severe, especially for bluefin tuna. The total population of southern bluefin has been reduced to about 8 percent of levels before industrial fishing took off in the 1950s, according to a U.N. report.

[Sidenote: I'm still puzzling over the idea of "a Catherine Zeta-Jones type of tuna," a bluefin that, as described by a Japanese vendor, has the desired "beauty and balanced plumpness."]