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Japan's press play the food card in bluefin tuna row

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species is in Qatar discussing proposed regulations covering certain plant and animal species. The main media focus is on bluefin tuna from the Atlantic.

Monaco had proposed a trade ban on the fish since increased demand from sushi lovers the world over has depleted ocean stocks by as much as 80 percent in recent years. Though the proposal has died, it has set the stage for a battle between the West and Asia, in particular Japan, which consumes three-fourths of Atlantic bluefin. Reportedly, the conservation ship Sea Shepherd, which regularly interferes with Japanese research whaling vessels in the South Pacific, is rushing to the aid of Atlantic tuna.

The Sea Shepherd says it is only on the side of the fish, but the Japanese media has characterized the boat’s action as not being for the fish but rather against the Japanese, a sentiment that has so far dominated the bluefin debate in Japan. Prior to the Qatar convention, Hirotaka Akamatsu, the minister of agriculture, forestry and fisheries, announced that if restrictions were imposed then Japan would probably ignore them. Most of the Atlantic bluefin that Japan imports comes from tuna farms that catch young fish, which are then fattened up in pens. The catch quota set by the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tuna is administered by weight, which means the farms only have to report the young tuna they catch, not the older, heavier tuna they sell. Japan is saying that if the ICCAT cracks down on this practice, tuna stocks could be conserved and there would be no need for CITES to impose a blanket ban on trade.

However, the Japanese government has not clearly articulated its reasons for opposing the ban, and the vacuum has been filled by a defensive press that once again promotes the idea that Japan’s storied “food culture” is under attack.

In a story typical of this position, the Asahi Shimbun interviewed various Japanese chefs. Last November, the Paris-based luxury hotel and restaurant network Relais et Chateaux asked its 475 worldwide members to stop serving bluefin tuna caught in the Atlantic and Mediterranean. Sixty percent of the membership signed the agreement. Of the 10 Japanese members only one did.

One anonymous chef told the Asahi that, while he agreed “everyone should be responsible for conservation of marine resources,” he was against singling out hon-maguro (bluefin tuna) for a ban. “We work in the service industry,” he explained. “So if customers demand hon-maguro we don’t have a good reason to refuse them.”

Kiyozo Mikuni, one of the most famous chefs in Japan, told the Asahi that he asked Relais et Chateaux to remove the restriction from its declaration since he believes it imposes a cultural bias that contradicts the association’s spirit. Mikuni points out that French restaurants resist protests from animal rights groups about the fate of geese in the production of foie gras, saying that foie gras is “part of France’s cultural heritage. We should avoid attacking each other’s food culture.”

Mikuni goes on to say that one could hardly call a sushi restaurant a sushi restaurant if it doesn’t serve hon-maguro, but he neglects to mention that the proposed ban would not have any effect on current stocks of tuna in Japan. Even Akamatsu admitted last November, when the ICCAT reduced quotas, that Japanese shouldn’t worry because there was enough frozen bluefin in storage to last two years.

The reason for such a huge inventory is that Japanese are eating less bluefin. In a frank discussion of the issue on NHK radio, one expert explained that hon-maguro is still a luxury — Atlantic bluefin accounts for only 5 percent of all tuna sold in Japan — and that since the current recession began the high-class tuna market has collapsed. When ICCAT imposed new quotas, it should have meant a rise in bluefin prices, but the opposite happened because Japanese demand isn’t really that high.

Because the fisheries ministry and certain commercial enterprises are locked into the tuna business, it is in their interests to keep supplies coming regardless of demand. What they are really worried about is that once CITES bans trade in Atlantic bluefin, a ban on other types of tuna will follow. As with Japan’s contentious research whaling program, “culture” is being used to protect the interests of this relatively small group of related professions. In an interview in the Asahi, former CITES administrator Yoshio Kaneko said that Atlantic bluefin tuna was not headed for extinction, though numbers were dropping at a rate that could conceivably make fishing for bluefin “commercially unviable.” If CITES imposes a ban and Japan ignores it, it might mean that more Japanese fishing boats would be sent to the Atlantic to catch the fish themselves. “So Japan would need to be prepared for some harsh criticism,” he said, not unlike the criticism Japan currently receives for research whaling. Kaneko thinks Japanese people have been brainwashed into “tuna worship,” and regardless of whether or not tuna are endangered, there are other fish they can eat.

It’s a point worth making. Once only the well-to-do could afford hon-maguro. Now it’s fairly affordable to everyone thanks to cultivation methods like those used in Australia and new freezing technology. But hon-maguro is still at the top of the pyramid and carries the kind of snob appeal that chefs like Mikuni take advantage of to sustain their high-class image.

It’s not clear if the public is buying the argument. One elderly-sounding woman interviewed on the street by NHK radio said she liked hon-maguro as much as the next person, but she can’t eat it all the time. “It’s more delicious when you just have a little bit once in a while.”

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