Managing declining fish stocks

Japan lags behind other countries in the efforts toward sustainable management of fish stocks in its surrounding waters. Many of the species familiar to Japanese consumers such as bluefin tuna, Alaska pollock and Japanese pufferfish are suffering from declining populations after years of overfishing to the point that the future of the fishing industry could be in doubt unless action is quickly taken to remedy the situation.

The Fisheries Agency has begun exploring new ways of controlling marine resources. The government is urged to overhaul the current policy, which focuses on voluntary management by fishing entities, and consider the introduction of new measures such as a system that establishes catch quotas for individual fishing boats. Fishermen also need to change their mindset and actively take part in sustainable fishing efforts.

According to the agency’s evaluation of the stocks of 85 fish species that are caught in waters near Japan, the stocks of 36 species are at a low level, with 15 of them facing continuous decline. Many of the species in this category are Japanese favorites, including Japanese horse mackerel, the Okhotsk Akta mackerel and sand lances. The adult population of the Pacific bluefin tuna — the catch and consumption of which Japan leads — is estimated to have fallen to its lowest-ever levels.

The declining stocks and falling catches have in turn intensified competition among fishermen to catch the limited stocks. But the declining commercial value of the fish is translating into poorer earnings for fishermen. This vicious cycle of declining resources and falling profitability is a double whammy for Japan’s fisheries industry.

To ensure sustainable management of these fish stocks, it is essential to set a species-specific total allowable catch at a level that would not negatively impact the populations of these species. The Fisheries Agency sets such quotas only on seven species, such as Japanese horse mackerel and Alaska pollock — a tiny fraction of the roughly 600 species controlled by New Zealand through the same method and about 500 species by the United States.

Many of the countries that impose total allowable catches on fish species also introduce a catch quota per fishing boat. The system serves to discourage fishermen from catching fish that have a low commercial value — such as juvenile fish whose survival to breeding age is critical for the species’ populations to rebound. Japan should consider the introduction of this system, which has been proven overseas to improve the profitability of fishermen while contributing to the effective management of fish stocks.

Opposition remains strong in Japan’s fishing industry to these quota systems. But such opponents should realize that their businesses will be doomed if they don’t take responsible action now. In short, the sustainable management of fish stocks is vital for their livelihood.

Consumers can also contribute to the sustainable management of fish stocks by consuming fish in a responsible manner. One way of doing that is to choose fish products certified by experts to have been produced in ways conducive to marine resource management and the protection of the environment. Among the world’s most recognized certifiers is the U.K.-based Marine Stewardship Council, which declares on its website that its mission is to “use our ecolabel and fishery certification program to contribute to the health of the world’s oceans by recognizing and rewarding sustainable fishing practices, influencing the choices people make when buying seafood, and working with our partners to transform the seafood market to a sustainable basis.”

While MSC has certified more than 200 fishing entities around the world, only two in Japan have qualified. The government can promote this system by supporting fishing entities that obtain certifications and educating consumers about its importance.

The future survival and prosperity of Japan’s fishing industry is dependent on its embrace of sustainable catch practices. Consumers can provide incentive by choosing seafood that has been certified as harvested in a sustainable manner.