Japan urged to lobby to save Mediterranean bluefin stocks



European environmentalists are calling on Japan, the biggest consumer of Mediterranean bluefin tuna, to support a drastic reduction in annual catches to preserve the long-term future of the fish.

Turkey will host an international meeting from Friday to Nov. 18 in which conservationists are hoping participants, including Japan, will agree to a groundbreaking cut in quotas.

But the Japanese government appears reluctant to endorse the massive cuts advocated by the green lobby. Instead, it favors a crackdown on countries that take more than their quotas and further deplete already fragile stocks.

Environmentalists say the bluefin tuna population in the Mediterranean and the Eastern Atlantic is “on the verge of collapse” after years of overfishing.

Catching bluefin began in the Mediterranean about 3,000 years ago. But what was once a small-scale family industry has grown over the last few decades into a big business with many traders making small fortunes.

Since the 1980s, the demand for bluefin from Japan, where it is used in sushi and sashimi, has grown dramatically.

Most bluefin are caught in large nets that are towed to coastal ranches. The tuna are fattened up for around six months before being killed. Most of the Mediterranean catch ends up in Japan.

Last November, the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas, the body that regulates catches, agreed to a “recovery plan” for the depleted stocks in the two areas. It reduced the annual quota from 32,000 tons in 2006 to 29,500 tons for 2007.

In addition, ICCAT, which comprises around 45 countries, including Japan and EU states, decided on a target quota of 25,500 tons by 2010. France and Italy have some of the biggest quotas.

But the green lobby has described the target as a “collapse plan.” Conservationists claim many of the traditional fishing grounds are now emptying as a result of overfishing, driven by high prices from Japan and improved technology that has allowed fleets to increase catch sizes.

Vessel operators are required to accurately report how much they catch. Environmentalists, however, estimate a further 20,000 tons is taken each year in excess of the quotas through deliberate underreporting.

Countries often officially declare in excess of their agreed quotas in any event. They can be penalized and normally this takes the form of a reduced quota for the following year.

Karli Thomas, a spokeswoman for Greenpeace, said she believes Japan should encourage other members to back massive cuts. ICCAT’s scientific committee recommended an annual quota of 15,000 tons, which environmentalists agree would provide for long-term sustainability.

“If Japan wants to have bluefin tuna in the future, it needs to take a stand. ICCAT would lose credibility at the Antalya meeting if it didn’t revisit the recovery plan. Catching bluefin in the Mediterranean needs to be suspended until proper measures are in place (principally the 15,000-ton quota),” she said.

Thomas is urging the Japanese public to lobby its government on the issue.

The committee recommended the reduced quota for a period of between eight to 10 years to allow stocks to recover and a move toward an annual sustainable catch of 45,000 tons per year.

Environmentalists are also calling for fishing to be banned in May and June, when many bluefin tuna swim into the Mediterranean from the Atlantic to breed and lay eggs in warm waters. Ideally, they would like the establishment of no-fishing areas set up by ICCAT.

Sergi Tudela, from the World Wide Fund for Nature, said: “Japan should take a more proactive role in ICCAT. It knows that the management plan (agreed last year in Dubrovnik) is going to drive the fishery to collapse. No one has any doubts about that.

“We are in favor of the sustainable consumption of tuna fish. We are not working to punish Japanese consumers. I’m from the Mediterranean and traditionally we also consume it. We are hoping that everyone can eat it sustainably,” Tudela said.

The WWF has informed Japanese bluefin importers of the crisis in the Mediterranean and branded them “willing accomplices in the demise of this majestic species.”

Critics of the present system believe the issue of fleets taking more than their official quotas needs to be urgently addressed as well.

Fishing companies should declare catches to their home countries. Some rogue firms, however, use a complex variety of ruses to get around the reporting rules, with French and Italian vessels being particularly guilty in this regard.

Some vessels fish at times when it is officially prohibited and governments themselves are sometimes lax in reporting accurate catches to ICCAT.

Environmentalists would like to see inspectors placed on vessels to ensure that what is actually caught is reported.

The combined capacity of the tuna ranches is above the annual quota and it is feared this is driving much of the overfishing.

Thomas would like to see Japan encourage other members of ICCAT to take tough action on underreporting and illegal fishing. She commends the Japanese government for recently ordering several boats back to Japan that were found to be fishing in the Mediterranean outside of the official season. The firms were also fined.

Under ICCAT rules, when the tuna is exported it should have an accompanying certificate to verify it was legally caught.

However, Tudela suspects that some parts of Asia — notably China — are turning a blind eye to imports of unreported and illegal catches that do not have certificates.

He strongly suspects some of this tuna is then re-exported to Japan in the form of ready-to-eat sushi.

Masanori Miyahara, a senior official at the Fisheries Agency in Tokyo and a delegate to ICCAT, said the issue of quotas would be discussed at the meeting. However, decisions are made on a majority basis. Japan has only one vote and there are 45 other members.

He said Japan will be calling for more stringent monitoring of catches and is working with China to improve the inspection regime. Miyahara also wants to improve the standards of certificates attached to legally caught tuna and would like to see tagging introduced.

Japan argues that worrying about official quotas is not fruitful unless illegal fishing and underreporting is addressed first.

Japan has agreed to cut its annual take of bluefin tuna in the Mediterranean and Eastern Atlantic. At a meeting in Tokyo this year, Japan decided to cut its quota from 2,830 tons in 2006 to 2,175 tons by 2010. The international community has welcomed this move.