That, I am informed as I stand peering over my boyfriend Alex's shoulder as he cooks, is a nice piece of fish. He holds the steak to his nose, breathes in its scent, and grins. He grips it like a chunk of gold, positioning the red flesh beneath the stove light on a white serving platter for me to survey. I admire the lean simplicity of the meat, its deep scarlet color and the fine cross lines running through it, a maze of muscle and sinew.
He has good reason to appreciate this fish. At a time when tuna populations are at record lows, its massive body was quite a catch. Locally harpooned and dressed at 610 pounds, it was swimming, weighing in at well over 700, just hours before.
There should be more fish like this one; bluefin used to be so common that Atlantic fishermen discarded it as by-catch, or sold it at 30 cents per pound for cat food. The arrival of purse seine fishing, with its deep, all-encircling nets and an international high price sashimi market in the late 1950s and 1960s changed all that. Suddenly the bluefin were disappearing at record rates, sold at auction in Japanese fish houses and leaving nothing but babies in Atlantic waters.
The juveniles today are weighing in at as little as 150 pounds, meaning they have gathered neither the time nor the brawn yet to breed before they are caught. Worse, because the young fish must be sold under the table, they are not being recorded, making the Atlantic look more plentiful than it is. The few big fish that are still around and recorded make it look like catch has gone down, when in reality, it's just getting smaller.
Despite penalties in the thousands of dollars, poaching continues. It moves under the radar, from local fishermen to Cape restaurateurs, each excusing the deed as already done. For the fisherman, the market is a given; for the chef, the fish are already dead.
Consumer demand doesn't help. Hungry visitors and guests want sashimi and toro and bluefin specials, and they want them cheap. As stock dwindles, the only way to keep prices where they are is to keep supplying fish, regardless of size or its cost in the end.
The fishmonger who lives with me has a hard time with this. When you tell someone looking for dinner that their fish was harpooned, they look at you in despair, as though you have sullied the flesh by revealing it's dead. We only make the connection between death and dinner, it seems, by being reminded that fish get caught. It's beside the point whether it was illegally or humanely.
But don't put your fork down just yet. Hope lies for me in the belief that most of us, however innately, know a good piece of fish when we see one. You don't get big steaks from small fish; no toro lines their bellies; the cuttings are smaller. When you see that perfect steak, when you know that this is a good piece of fish, buy it. Otherwise, pass the pasta.
PAN SEARED BLUEFIN
Cut a one pound bluefin steak into two 4- by 1- by 1-inch rectangles. Season with salt and pepper and sear for 20 seconds per side in a hot, oiled skillet. Slice rectangles into thin squares and eat hot with a ponzu dipping sauce made from equal parts rice vinegar, soy sauce, and lime juice.