Japan has belatedly ratified an international agreement aimed at eliminating illegal fishing, which is estimated to reach up to 26 million tons a year and is feared to threaten efforts toward sustainable fishing in the world’s oceans. As a major consumer of fish and a key fisheries player, Japan needs to tighten its own domestic measures against illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing.

The Agreement on Port State Measures to Prevent, Deter and Eliminate Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated Fishing, brokered by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), entered into force in June 2016 with the participation of more than 40 countries and the European Union. Due to the delay in readying domestic measures, it took Japan another year to ratify and join the agreement, which restricts port access to fishing ships that do not comply with the rules, including proof that they have proper operating licenses and disclosure of the species and quantity of the fish caught. It is meant to crack down on IUU fishing, whose value is said to amount each year to $23.5 billion worldwide, or roughly ¥2.6 trillion — far larger than Japan’s annual fisheries output of some ¥1.5 trillion. It is feared that the products of IUU fishing are consumed in Japan in large volumes.

While ratification of the accord puts Japan in step with other countries in the concerted international effort to combat IUU fishing, a recent string of revelations of illicit fishing by Japanese fishermen exposes the nation’s weak regulations against such practices.

Based on an agreement adopted by the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission in 2015, the Fisheries Agency has introduced regulations on the catch of the threatened Pacific bluefin tuna — limiting the annual catch of immature fish weighing less than 30 kg to within 4,007 tons and setting catch quotas in each areas and method of fishing. But the government said in April that Japan already exceeded the annual limit through June, breaking the international commitment only two years after the regulation was introduced. The excess catch will be deducted from the quota for next year.

It was revealed that unlicensed fishermen from Nagasaki Prefecture were catching bluefin tuna last year, while fishermen from Mie Prefecture were operating in defiance of Fisheries Agency requests for voluntary restraint in fishing. A subsequent probe exposed that fishermen from 12 prefectures were either catching bluefin tuna without a license or failing to report their catch — with the total catch of such illicit fishing reaching 132 tons, although the exposed illicit operations are believed to represent only a tip of the iceberg.

Stock of Pacific bluefin tuna, a popular ingredient for sushi and other Japanese dishes, in waters near Japan is said to have fallen to some 17,000 tons as of 2014, or roughly one-tenth of its peak. Japan has caught more bluefin in the Pacific this year than any other country. Its lax enforcement of the fishing regulation could trigger international criticism and cast doubt on its credibility in the fight against IUU fishing.

Illicit fishing is not limited to bluefin tuna. Cases of poaching of glass eel, sea cucumber and abalone by Japanese fishermen exposed by authorities are also reportedly rising in numbers.

Illicit fishing remains rampant in Japan, it has been pointed out, because in many instances fishing regulations and the reporting of catches rely on voluntary compliance by fishermen, who face only weak punishments such as fines even when they are found to have been poaching. Lax enforcement of fishing regulations by Japan, one of the world’s top consumers of fish, risks the nation becoming subject to greater international pressure to enact tighter regulations for the sake of preserving fish stocks.

IUU fishing poses multiple risks for Japan’s fisheries market, ranging from poaching by domestic fishermen and the exporting of their illicit catch to the import of fish illegally caught overseas. Domestic measures against IUU fishing need to be tightened. In ratifying the FAO agreement against illicit fishing, the United States, for example, reportedly decided to introduce a system requiring traders to prove that certain fish they handle, such as tuna and abalone — considered high IUU-risk species due to strong demand — have been caught in legitimate ways. Unless Japan introduces more powerful steps to crack down on IUU fishing, it could face criticism that its weak measures are compromising international efforts to combat this scourge.

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