HONOLULU-- Australia, New Zealand, and Japan recently agreed to jointly launch an experimental fishing program for southern bluefin tuna. Quotas for southern bluefin tuna, along with Japan's unilateral experimental fishing programs, have been sources of diplomatic contention among the three countries. Joint research will improve scientific understanding of tuna stocks and increase cooperative efforts to reduce tuna catches by countries that do not abide by international management rules.

Southern bluefin tuna is a highly migratory species whose management inevitably requires international cooperation. Facing declining stocks, Australia, New Zealand and Japan voluntarily set catch quotas in 1985. National quotas have been frozen at reduced levels since 1989, with Japan taking the largest cut proportionately. The quotas were formalized under the newly created three-party Commission for Conservation of the Southern Bluefin Tuna in 1994.

A major disagreement within the CCSBT concerns the state of stock recovery. Data collection has been based on reports made by commercial fishermen. This means fishing areas and seasons are not selected through scientific sampling, but scientists do their best with the data available. Japan has consistently argued since the mid-1990s that stock recovery is likely taking place. As a result, fishermen are fishing in smaller areas for shorter periods of time before reaching their quotas.