Catch quotas for Pacific saury

Japan’s attempt to set country-by-country catch quotas for Pacific saury was snubbed at an international fisheries meeting in July. Such quotas are indispensable for proper management of saury stocks. The government should introduce the idea again in a meeting next year and increase the chances of it being accepted by making careful efforts to gain support from countries that opposed it this year.

The nation’s catch of Pacific saury, a fish many Japanese relish as an autumnal dish, is on the decline. The annual catch, which used to amount to 200,000 to 300,000 tons — the largest in the Northern Pacific Ocean — fell to 110,000 tons in 2015 and 2016. Taiwan has occupied the top position since 2013, catching 146,000 tons in 2016, while the catch by China, which was only 2,000 tons in 2012, shot up to 63,000 tons last year. Japan’s declining catch is reflected in the rising price of Pacific saury, which hit ¥2,131 per 10 kg at the dock in 2016, nearly twice the 2011 price.

Since Japanese consumers are particular about the freshness of the saury they eat, local fishermen catch the fish near the coasts inside the nation’s exclusive economic zone, using small fishing boats and returning to their ports daily so their catch can quickly be brought to market. In contrast, Chinese and Taiwanese operate large fishing boats in areas outside the EEZ, lying more than 400 km from Japanese coasts. They operate for several months at a stretch and freeze their catch aboard their ships. In recent years, the number of Pacific saury in Japan’s coastal waters is also believed to have declined due to rising sea temperatures in the area.

The Northern Pacific Fisheries Commission held its third meeting in Sapporo in July to discuss the management of Pacific saury and chub mackerel stocks, whose decline is feared along with falling stocks of bluefin tuna and eels. Japan proposed the country-by-country quotas for Pacific saury whose total will reach 564,000 tons — including 242,000 tons for Japan, 191,000 tons for Taiwan, 47,000 tons for China, 61,000 tons for Russia and 19,000 tons for South Korea. Despite support from Taiwan, the United States and Canada, the proposal was rejected due to opposition from China, South Korea and Russia.

A preliminary results released in April of resource assessment studies showed that Pacific saury is not being overfished, and that it is believed that a certain level of stocks is maintained. However, the Fisheries Agency hopes to make a renewed attempt at setting country-by-country catch quotas at an early date. The agency thinks that such quotas are easy to introduce when stocks are not feared to be in decline — because when stocks begin to fall, conflicts of interest among countries catching the fish intensify and agreement on catch quotas become difficult to reach. There are also hopes that China may be ready to discuss catch quotas in a few years after it has increased its annual catch records.

Although the idea of a country-by-country catch quota was rejected, the July meeting produced some agreements. The participants agreed not to increase the number of fishing boats registered with the NPFC to catch Pacific saury. The measure, a Japanese proposal, will be applied to China, Taiwan and South Korea. A problem with this accord is that the countries can still increase their catch by using larger fishing vessels in their fleets. The NPFC should monitor the situation to see if the cap on the number of boats serve its intended purpose.

The NPFC also adopted Japan’s proposal for blacklisting fishing boats of unknown national registration that engage in reckless fishing activities. Officials have been given the power to carry out on-board inspections of fishing boats in their effort to control illegal fishing. Large numbers of foreign fishing vessels not registered with the NPFC are being spotted off Japanese coasts engaging in illegal fishing. If such illegal practices continue, the agreement to cap the number of registered fishing boats will be rendered meaningless.

Although Japan played a role in beefing up regulations on Pacific saury this year, the introduction of country-by-country catch quotas will require greater efforts. Before next year’s meeting, Japan needs to arm itself with convincing arguments by collecting scientifically reliable and detailed data on saury stocks and gathering solid evidence of illegal fishing.

It surfaced in April that Japan failed to observe the internationally agreed quota on young Pacific bluefin tuna. Such a practice will have a harmful effect on international efforts to manage fish stocks. If Japan wants other countries to observe internationally agreed regulations on the fishing of bluefin tuna, Pacific saury and chub mackerel, it must set an example by following them itself.