One of Japan’s favorite foods is about to become harder to get and more expensive. Consumers may soon discover just how rapidly Pacific bluefin tuna stocks are being depleted. A survey in July found that the Pacific bluefin stock of over 3 years old has fallen to near record lows. In response, Japan has proposed a 15 percent cut in catches of tuna three years old and under.

The current crisis should come as no surprise since the same problem happened with Atlantic bluefin tuna stocks. Those Atlantic tuna populations have been depleted to levels from which they may not recover and though Pacific stocks are larger, Japan’s proposal may be too little too late.

Most scientific committees and studies, such as the International Scientific Committee for Tuna and Tuna-like Species In the North Pacific Ocean and the World Wildlife Fund, have pointed out that current levels of fishing are unsustainable.

At least the Japanese government has finally recognized the essential problem of overconsumption and overfishing of popular fish. However, the United States, also a major fisher of Pacific bluefin tuna, is seeking a 25 percent reduction. Hopefully, Japan can be convinced to increase the reduction to at least match the American proposal.

The Fisheries Agency said it will hold a gathering to ask fishermen to refrain from catching young Pacific bluefin tuna, but this soft approach is unlikely to have much effect. What is needed is a consensus-based, international set of rules with real consequences. Without enforcement, such “polite requests” are unlikely to do much.

Japan has a special obligation to help protect the population. After all, Japan introduced sushi and sashimi to the world, a culinary achievement of which it can be proud. However, the level of consumption has skyrocketed both here and abroad.

Japan ate 13,324 tons of the 17,651 tons of Pacific bluefin caught in 2011. Mexico took much of the rest of the annual catch. Japan should work harder to make it imperative that sustainable fishing becomes standard practice.

Consumers and restaurants might also want to reconsider their habits. At many of the best sushi and sashimi restaurants around the world, Atlantic bluefin tuna, whose populations were depleted more quickly than in the Pacific, has already been banned from menus. The same ban may need to be considered with Pacific bluefin tuna if agreements cannot be reached.

Voluntary domestic regulations in Japan would ease some of the burden, but the best solution is for tuna lovers to stop eating tuna and restaurants to stop serving it until the population can return to safe levels. As the world’s biggest consumer of Pacific bluefin, Japan should work to ensure that stocks do not become depleted. Restrictions must be implemented and enforced before it is too late.

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