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A new study has found that illegal tuna fishing in the Pacific Ocean is bringing in profits of $520 to $740 million a year.

The study, carried out by the Pacific Islands Forum Fisheries Agency, found that illegal fishing is typically carried out by licensed vessels that under-report their catches or transfer them to other ships at sea. That adds up to somewhere between 276,000 to 338,000 tons of illegally caught Pacific tuna every year.

The study did not name the specific nations where the poached fish end up, but Japan, which is the world’s largest consumer of tuna, clearly must be the market for much of it. Still, no one knows for sure because it is almost impossible to monitor. There are almost no international resources in place to check where fish come from, and even fewer resources to police the vast waters of the Pacific Ocean. Transferring tuna to other vessels or simply under-reporting what is caught is easily done.

If tuna populations were as viable now as nearly 50 years ago, illegal fishing might not be such a problem. However, many scientific studies have found that almost all populations of fish have halved since 1970. Overall, the Pacific supplies about 60 percent of the world’s tuna, but because of over-fishing its tuna populations are in danger of collapse.

The report found that one third of the illegally caught tuna was skipjack tuna (katsuo), followed by yellowfin tuna (kihada maguro) at 31 percent and bigeye tuna (mebachi maguro) at 19 percent. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature puts yellowfin’s status as near threatened, bigeye as vulnerable, or nearly endangered, while skipjack remains of less, though increasing, concern since stocks of the extremely popular Pacific Bluefin tuna (hon maguro) has been found to be depleted by up to 96 percent.

Sustainable, legal, regulated and enforced fishing of tuna in the Pacific is in everyone’s interests, especially countries like Japan where tuna is immensely popular. Such illegal fishing is a form of robbery and often fails to distinguish between juvenile and mature tuna, so that tuna populations are being depleted faster than they can be replaced. Distinguishing the catch is important because tuna is a fish that takes many years to reach maturity and begin to reproduce. Bluefin tuna can live 40 years and reproduce many times, if given the chance.

Japan should help to set up a system of monitoring, both financially and technologically, and push for international agreements on how to enforce the legal size of catches. Management of juvenile stocks of tuna has met with some success, but deserves greater support.

Conservation and sustainable fishing of tuna should become the norm, but the way must be led by one of the largest consumers of tuna in the world—Japan.

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