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A fish tale you can believe: $736,700 for a tuna

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Bluefin tuna can command a premium price of approximately $1,244 a pound in Japan.

On Aug. 21, The Telegraph newspaper reported that a fisherman had caught an extremely rare bahaba off the coast of Fujian Province in China. The fish weighed 176 pounds, and commanded more than $475,000 at market.

The bahaba fetches high market prices for its swim bladder, which is used in Chinese medicine to treat lung and heart ailments. The fish has been known to exceed 200 pounds, so despite the impressive size of the Aug. 21 catch, there have been larger specimens out there that yielded even higher paydays, such as one caught in south China in 2010 that sold for $540,000.

As impressive a haul as that is, it didn’t represent the highest known payday for something caught from the sea. There have been other fish worth hundreds of thousands of dollars more, and even though they represent the exceptions, they’re out there nonetheless. The sea is home to fish that people don’t mind paying a lot of money for, and that makes $7.99 for a pound of salmon look like chump change in comparison.

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On Jan. 5, a Japanese fishing industry still reeling from the March 2011 tsunami got a much-needed shot in the arm. On that day, a Bluefin tuna weighing almost 592 pounds was caught near the seaside Japanese town of Oma.

Normally, when a large fish is sold at Tokyo’s Tsukiji central fish market, the purchase is split between a local bar and a Hong Kong restaurant chain. This time, the fish was purchased in its entirety by a Japanese company.

The tuna was purchased by the Kiyomura Company in Tokyo for a record-setting $736,700, or approximately $1,244 a pound. The company that made the massive purchase owns the Sushi Zanmai restaurant chain, and owner Kiyoshi Kimura told The Wall Street Journal that rather than split the cost with a foreign company, he wanted this to be a purely Japanese purchase.

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“Rather than having it taken away overseas, I wish for Japanese people to eat good tuna together,” he said. “Despite the March 11 earthquake and the sluggish economy, I want to lift up Japan’s spirits, urging people to work hard together.”

While the $736,700 Bluefin was an exceptional find, such fish bring in an impressive haul only when they're handled in the right way. 

On Aug. 3, Irish fisherman Tom Kennedy caught a Bluefin off the coastal town of Dingle. It didn’t quite measure up to the Oma catch, but it was pretty impressive nonetheless, weighing in at 308 pounds.

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Unfortunately, he was unable to sell his catch in Japan and live off the proceeds. Japanese regulations require that any fish to be used in sushi must be frozen within 20 minutes of being caught, which Kennedy sadly failed to do.

Kevin Flannery, director of the Dingle Oceanworld aquarium, told The Irish Sun that Kennedy now stood to earn only "a few hundred euro," and would have been singing a happier tune if he had been able to sell it in Japan. "It would be like winning the lotto," Flannery said. "Bluefin tuna is the most expensive commercially caught fish."

Flannery tried to put a happy face on the scenario, saying that Japan’s loss was now Ireland’s gain. Local fish and chips shops would have plenty of delicious Bluefin on hand to enjoy for the entire week.

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As the discriminating gourmand is no doubt aware, the beluga sturgeon from the Caspian Sea is the source of beluga caviar, a luxury commodity that’s synonymous with high-end elegance. The International Union for Conservation of Nature lists it as "critically endangered," the highest-risk category on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, and the caviar was banned in the United States by the Fish and Wildlife Service in 2005.

At the time of the ban, beluga caviar sold for $200 an ounce,and 60 percent of all worldwide consumption took place in the United States. The ban allowed some U.S. companies to take up the slack, such as the California Caviar Company, which sells caviar from locally farmed sturgeon that retails for $80 an ounce.

Legal outlets sell caviar with tastes and textures very similar to the banned variety, but for some people, it just isn’t the same. These people are willing to pay much higher prices for the real thing on the black market, and a 2010 report from the International Centre for Trade and Sustainable Development quoted caviar importer Armen Petrossian, who estimated that 1 ounce of beluga caviar from the Caspian Sea can fetch as much as $500.

Fugu is the Japanese word for pufferfish. Eating it has the potential to be very costly, and not just in the traditional sense. The fugu’s organs contain tetrodotoxin, a deadly poison that asphyxiates its victim if ingested. Common sense dictates that people would stay as far away from fugu as possible, but it’s actually a delicacy for which some people pay handsomely.

To prepare the fish for safe consumption, Japanese chefs are required to undergo up to three years of apprenticeship, followed by a licensing exam and, finally, eating the fish that they themselves have prepared for the first time. If they don’t succumb to paralysis, muscle shutdown and ultimately death, then they pass.

One might assume that the person who would order this meal is a very aggressive, type A personality, possibly one who is hoping to impress his girlfriend. Jameson Parvizad, general manager of the Blowfish To Die For restaurant in San Francisco, Calif., insists that this is not the case. “The kind of people who order it are people that are foodies, and are really down to try something that isn't offered anywhere else,” he said in an interview.

Adventurous Americans wishing to try fugu stateside should be comforted by the fact that chefs have had to receive extensive training similar to that of Japanese fugu chefs in order to prepare the dish. Blowfish To Die For has a single, dedicated chef whose job it is to prepare the restaurant’s special six-course meal for two. The price for an adventurous couple to dine with death is $280.