A bluefin tuna has sold for a record $2.12 million at a Tokyo auction, nearly three times the previous high set last year - even as environmentalists warn that stocks of the majestic, speedy fish are being depleted worldwide amid strong demand for sushi.
In the year's first auction at Tokyo's Tsukiji fish market on Saturday, the 222-kilogram tuna, caught off northeastern Japan, sold for 155.4 million yen (NZ$2.12m), market official Ryoji Yagi said.
The fish's tender pink and red meat is prized for sushi and sashimi. The best slices of fatty bluefin - called "o-toro" in Japan - can sell for 2000 yen (NZ$27) per piece at upmarket sushi bars.
Japanese eat 80 per cent of the bluefin tuna caught worldwide, and much the global catch is shipped to Japan for consumption.
The winning bidder, Kiyoshi Kimura, president of Kiyomura Co, which operates the Sushi-Zanmai restaurant chain, said "the price was a bit high" but he wanted to "encourage Japan", the Kyodo News agency reported.
Kimura also set the former record of 56.4 million yen at last year's first auction. The event attracts high bids as a celebratory way to kick off the new year - or get some publicity.
The prices do not necessarily reflect high-quality fish.
The price works out to 700,000 yen or NZ$9550 per kilogram.
Stocks of all three bluefin species - the Pacific, Southern and Atlantic - have fallen over the past 15 years amid overfishing. An intergovernmental group today will release Pacific bluefin stocks data that environmentalists believe will likely show an alarming decline.
"Everything we're hearing is that there's no good news for the Pacific bluefin," said Amanda Nickson, the director of the Washington-based Pew Environmental Group's global tuna conservation campaign.
"We're seeing a very high value fish continue to be overfished."
The population of the Southern bluefin, which swims in the southern Pacific, has plunged to 3 per cent to 8 per cent of its original levels. Bluefin stocks in the Atlantic and Mediterranean plunged by 60 per cent between 1997 and 2007 because of, often illegal, overfishing and lax quotas.
Although there has been some improvement in recent years, experts say the outlook for the species is fragile.