A Chinese NGO has called for the protection of endangered bluefin tuna before consumption becomes a widespread trend in the country of 1.38 billion people.

Highly prized for sushi and sashimi in Asia, bluefin tuna populations have severely declined owing to overfishing and illegal fishing. The International Union for Conservation of Nature lists aouthern bluefin tuna as critically endangered, whilst Atlantic bluefin tuna is endangered and pacific bluefin is considered vulnerable.

However, bluefin tuna is not listed in the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), meaning it is legal to import the fish in China.

bluefin tuna
Bluefin tuna. Photo: NOAA.

JD.com, one of China’s largest e-commerce sites, announced that it would take the fish off the shelves in June. It came just days after it started selling southern bluefin tuna on its online store, following criticism from environmental NGOs. According to China Dialogue, two other major e-commerce sites Taobao and Yihaodian also followed suit in de-shelving the product.

Mainland conservation groups told Hong Kong public broadcaster RTHK that only around 220 tonnes of the fish is consumed in China annually – less than one per cent of total global consumption. However, it said the practice of eating bluefin tuna must be stopped before it became a widespread trend in the populous country.

“Right now it’s already being billed as a luxury item. Eating the fish feels like a status symbol. China has so many people… with the rise in spending power of the middle class and the popularity of this imported, expensive ingredient rising day by day, a prevalence of bluefin tuna could be easily achieved,” said Wang Zhuya, International Director of mainland NGO the China Biodiversity Conservation and Green Development Foundation.

Tokyo - Fish Market
Blue fin tuna for sale at Tsukiji Market, Tokyo, Japan. File photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

Wang Songlin the founder of environmental firm Qingdao Tao Ran Environmental Science and Technology, said that, besides refining the current laws and regulations to protect endangered species, the government must also increase the public’s awareness of conservation through education.


RTHK found that bluefin tuna is still being sold on the Alibaba’s Taobao online shopping platform under a slightly different name – with one character changed into a different one with the same pronunciation. A search on Taobao on Thursday using the term yielded over a dozen results from ten different sellers.

taobao bluefin tuna
Photo: Screenshot.

When RTHK contacted a Taobao vendor, it confirmed to the broadcaster that the tuna was authentic bluefin. “It’s real, it’s real, we don’t sell fake products. They’re all real products,” the vendor told the RTHK reporter, who was posing as a buyer. “Because, earlier, JD.com took bluefin tuna off their shelves, [after] meeting with opposition from conservation groups, and then Taobao also followed suit.”

“Taobao said it had to protect this rare species, so it banned the term [bluefin tuna].”

“Yes, the two words ‘bluefin’ is screened,” the vendor continued. “It can’t be searched, so we changed it to a character with the same sound.”

In 2015, Alibaba founder Jack Ma kicked off the company’s annual shopping festival by buying a 68-kilogram farmed bluefin tuna costing RMB 38,888 (HK$46,819) fresh from Japan, which he divided amongst his staff.

Alibaba did not respond to HKFP’s requests for comment.

catherine lai

Catherine Lai

Catherine is a Canadian journalist and photographer who lived in Beijing for almost two years, working in TV and online media. Aside from Hong Kong and mainland affairs, she is also interested in urban spaces, art and feminism. She holds a BA in Literature and Art History from the University of British Columbia.