Nobu's Past Controversy With A Once-Endangered Species

The sushi industry has seen recent price surges across the board, but famous Japanese restaurant Nobu has stayed luxurious from the jump. A single piece of bluefin nigiri or sashimi on the Nobu menu runs for $20. The Sushi Legend lauds Nobu as the forerunner of the global sushi craze. Since opening its first restaurant in 1994, Nobu has expanded to over 30 locations. Corporate Chef Thomas Buckley of Nobu Miami explains Nobu's initial rise to restaurant stardom as sushi fans being drawn to its atmosphere as a "Michelin-star restaurant without tablecloths," he says, per Forbes. "You have shared plates, chopsticks, and there's no need for 20 different glasses."

But, its atmosphere isn't the only casual thing about Nobu; its stance on the bluefin tuna becoming an endangered species during the mid-2000s was lax at best. Per Tulane University Law School, Southern bluefin tuna remained the most at-risk and critically endangered species of tuna on the endangered species list until early 2021. Now, luckily, bluefin tuna have made a remarkable comeback and moved off of the endangered species list entirely, reports National Geographic. Still, Nobu did not once cease or even limit its bluefin offerings during the bluefin's entire time as an endangered species, making it the target of past and current conservationist backlash. The restaurant might be as famous as it is infamous.

Nobu continued selling bluefin tuna even when other restaurants stopped

In 2007, Gordon Ramsay removed bluefin tuna from the menu at two of his London restaurants, reports the Daily Mail. The decision came from criticism by the World Wildlife Fund and the Marine Conservation Society, which maintained that a chef in such a public spotlight set a poor example for other restaurateurs by offering the then-endangered species on its menu. After Ramsay said bye-bye to bluefin, other restaurants followed his lead. The Fairmont Hotels and Resorts took the fish off of menus in 2009, per Seafood Source.

Nobu's response to the criticism was — to put it generously — disappointing to food fans. The restaurant reprinted menus with an asterisk beside its bluefin offerings, listing the bluefin as "environmentally challenged," reports HuffPost, thereby passing the ethical responsibility of deciding whether or not to partake onto the consumer. The asterisk demonstrated less genuine care for an endangered species than a shifting of blame for why it got eaten. The move was a deviously clever perversion of "the customer is always right" motto, and bluefin conservationists weren't impressed. A 2009 review by The Guardian criticized the move as a "restaurant version of the Nuremberg defense: if they serve it, it's only because they are following diner's orders ... The rich and conscience-free, meanwhile, can gorge on the soon-to-be-extinct until it's all gone."

The future of eating endangered species

Many high-end restaurants, including Nobu, consider bluefin as less an endangered species than a luxury item. Catherine Kilduff, staff attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity, notes the extreme profitability of bluefin, and what a detriment its high-spending fans are to its long-term survival. "Unfortunately, this is an environmental issue that's been very responsive in the past to economics," Kilduff says, via NPR. "There are still people who want to buy it; that's why the price is so high. The only way to break that loop is to have people say they're valuable in the oceans."

According to biology news media outlet, a single bluefin tuna reeled in over $37,000 at a Tokyo auction in 2015 (granted, the fish weighed a massive 380 pounds, but still). The buyer, sushi restaurateur Kiyoshi Kimura, commented that he was "surprised to win the bid at such a low price." These prices might seem exorbitant, but they match the status of the clientele at sushi joints like Nobu. Nobu has famously become a favorite haunt of celebrities, including Bradley Cooper, Taylor Swift, and the Kardashians, per The Travel.

A now-closed petition on rallied over 30,000 signatures specifically calling for Nobu to remove bluefin from its menu. But, at least for now, it doesn't look like Nobu is going to budge, but, while the bluefin is safer now, perhaps public opinion on offering endangered species as menu items will budge, even for celebrity sushi fans.