Conservationists pan Tokyo talks on saving bluefin

by William Hollingworth

Kyodo

Environmentalists trying to preserve endangered stocks of bluefin tuna in Europe do not think an upcoming international conference in Tokyo will alleviate the crisis.

They believe the meeting of industry figures in March will merely paper over the cracks because it will not address what they call generous fishing quotas in the Mediterranean and the Eastern Atlantic.

But the Fisheries Agency is defending the meeting, saying it will attempt to combat the problem of unauthorized fishing and also act as a springboard for further quota cuts.

Greenpeace International has issued a report showing how certain practices and loopholes in Japan can undermine current fishing limits.

The gathering in Tokyo has been called to ensure all industry players know the various rules that are designed to prevent unauthorized fishing.

It is also hoped that joint voluntary actions can be established to ensure each country stays within its annual quota and the total catch is reduced in the future as part of a deal hammered out in 2006.

Environmentalists say stocks of bluefin in Europe — most of which ends up on the plates of Japanese consumers as sushi and sashimi — are on the verge of collapse after years of intensive fishing.

They slammed a meeting last year in Turkey that saw bluefin quotas in the area slightly increased despite calls by scientists for significant cuts on the recovery plan agreed to in 2006 that envisaged reducing the annual catch from 32,000 tons to 29,500 for 2007. There is also a target to reduce the total to 25,500 by 2010.

Environmental groups have recommended a ban on fishing to restore stocks to a sustainable level.

“The only response was this meeting to ask the industry to comply with the various regulations, which we believe is not an acceptable response to the urgency of the situation,” said Sebastian Losada of Greenpeace.

The industry already knows the various rules to govern catches as laid down by ICCAT (International Commission For the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas), he added.

“Only an immediate cessation of fishing can avoid the disaster forecasted by scientists,” said Sergi Tudela of the WWF. “Industry stakeholders meeting in March should support this necessary short-term closure of the fishery and, at the same time, designing a new business model for the midterm that would ensure recovery of the stock, in a context of much reduced fishing and farming capacity.”

Despite comprehensive rules laid down by ICCAT, the area is still plagued by unauthorized fishing that analysts say robs the seas of an extra 20,000 tons of bluefin each year.

Rogue fishermen use various scams to get around the ICCAT reporting requirements and, despite attempts by regulators to crack down, there are still big problems.

Each year, environmental groups detail vessels not registered with ICCAT fishing for bluefin in the Mediterranean. And despite the existence of quotas, several countries regularly exceed these limits.

Masanori Miyahara, a senior official at the Fisheries Agency, said he was disappointed with the outcome of the Antalya meeting, but it was important that noncompliance with the rules was addressed.

He also said operators have “to realize that they need to limit their operation to ensure sustainability of the resource and the continuity of their operations.”

“We consider the March meeting an essential step, not only to realize full compliance to ICCAT measures, but also to make the 2008 ICCAT meeting more constructive than last year’s for decisions needed to ensure bluefin tuna’s sustainable future,” Miyahara added.

Meanwhile, Greenpeace recently conducted an investigation that found that Japan has far more fishing boats registered with ICCAT than actually operate in the areas covered by the regulatory authority.

Losada said this is an important issue that needs to be addressed because it falsely boosts Tokyo’s position when holding negotiations on reducing fleet capacity and setting quotas.

Japan is one of several countries that do this.

The report also reveals that several firms have succeeded in dodging a ban on exporting their fishing vessels to countries less inclined to report their catches accurately. For example, several Japanese tuna boats have recently been reflagged to the Cambodian shipping registry.

For the scheme to succeed, under Japanese rules the owner needs to change the boat’s status to one of being a “merchant or carrier” vessel. This involves removing all fishing equipment on board.

However, once the vessels have been imported and reflagged, the equipment is reinstalled and go back after bluefin, Greenpeace said.