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Japan’s fisheries still swimming upstream

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In March, the internet news site Videonews.com posted a conversation between environmental journalist Tetsuji Ida and Waseda University researcher Yasuhiro Sanada, who writes about fisheries. During the talk, Sanada said that whaling is a “dead industry,” and seemed to think that the ongoing controversy over Japan’s official research whaling policy is a red herring. The Nippon Research Center says that 95 percent of Japanese people consume whale very rarely or never at all. Whaling only employs about 1,000 people. And regardless of the questionable morality of Japan’s research whaling program, it only kills several hundred whales a year, which doesn’t have much of an impact, environmentally or otherwise.

Hiroki Ose, a commentator for NHK, elaborated on this theme in a blog post on April 20. Japan’s fishing interests are sensitive to international criticism because of whaling, he said, and this sensitivity is shared by the public, which tends to get defensive when it hears non-Japanese complain about Japan’s seafood industry. As a result, other contentious issues regarding Japanese fishing are seen as Japan- bashing.

Both men were talking independently about a different subject: the overfishing of bluefin tuna, a problem for which Japan is mainly responsible. Japan consumes about 80 percent of the bluefin caught in the world, and though the country’s appetite for kuromaguro is described in its media as being voracious, it’s not a negative characterization, because the environmental effects of that appetite are rarely mentioned. So when people hear through news reports that international organizations are calling for stricter catch limitations and even moratoriums on tuna fishing, they feel as if their way-of-life is being threatened.

“I’ve been to many international conferences about whaling,” Sanada said. “And, actually, they’re quite amicable. But at international meetings about bluefin tuna, everyone is antagonistic toward Japan.” The particulars of this antagonism, however, are almost never conveyed to the Japanese public.

One obstacle to understanding is the Japan branch of the International Scientific Committee for Tuna and Tuna-like Species in the North Pacific Ocean (ISC), an organization within the Fisheries Agency that manages policy for bluefin tuna. According to Ida, the ISC was specifically established to draw attention away from complaints by the international community about Japan’s tuna consumption, which, he said, is unsustainable.

“We eat tuna everyday,” said Ida, “without realizing that it’s almost extinct.”

Stocks of bluefin in the world now stand at only 2.6 percent of what they were in the late 1970s, before catches were monitored. “We ate the rest,” he added wryly.

Countries such as Mexico and Croatia are expanding bluefin tuna farms to satisfy Japanese demand, but cultivated tuna makes up a very small portion of the Japanese market. Fishermen in both the Atlantic and the Pacific still hunt the fish using huge seine nets, which tend to catch young fish as well as old ones. That means many are caught before they have a chance to breed, thus accelerating the species’ decimation. The International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) prohibits the catching of fish that are less than 30 kilograms. Bluefin are about 3 years old at that weight, and only 20 percent are sexually mature. There is now a movement to change the limit to 85 kg, when the fish are about 5 years old.

The problem in the Pacific is that almost all the tuna is caught by Japan, and the ISC, which is supposed to monitor the catch, doesn’t seem to be doing that. Though the Fisheries Agency, in line with international rules, limits catches in the Pacific, there are no penalties for violations. So when Sanada says that the ICCAT and other organizations complain about Japan, it’s ISC they are griping about, despite the committee’s purposely low profile. The ISC’s home page doesn’t even list an address.

What angers international groups is that Japan doesn’t act in concert with the rest of the world. Because tuna travel long distances, they are a resource that needs to be managed globally. Japan, which dominates Pacific fishing interests, should be at the forefront of conservation efforts, but other countries have to apply pressure in order for Japan to come up with its own viable solutions or follow those implemented by international organizations to which it belongs.

Generally speaking, the Fisheries Agency, when it does act, does so from an adversarial stance. When Atlantic bluefin stocks were dropping, Japan complained to the ICCAT that it wasn’t doing enough to control Atlantic fishermen, most of whom are European. The ICCAT responded through strict quota enforcement and by temporarily banning seine fishing. Stocks eventually improved. Now the Western & Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC) has the same complaint about Japan, which doesn’t sufficiently uphold the WCPFC’s quotas and provides dodgy data, according to Ida. The Fisheries Agency’s main mission is to protect Japan’s coastal fishing industry, not the tuna themselves, though the agency doesn’t say so outright.

Meanwhile, the Japanese public is oblivious to the controversy and enjoys tuna on a daily basis thanks to deflationary pressure. TV food shows prioritize tuna that everyone can afford but nevertheless the media saves its most hyperbolic praise for high-end product, most of which is caught by line-and-reel fishermen who bag one fish at a time in man-on-tuna battles worthy of Hemingway and which make for exciting TV specials.

That image is misleading, however, since the vast bulk of tuna sold in stores comes from seine fishing. Tuna caught in nets en masse also aren’t processed as quickly as fish caught individually with a line, and thus don’t taste as fresh. This is the most significant aspect of tuna commerce — that in order to satisfy Japan’s appetite for its most prized delicacy, merchants give consumers an inferior product. That few of them understand the difference says a lot about that appetite.