Japan’s bid to expand the catch quotas for Pacific bluefin tuna by 15 percent — in light of the moderate recovery in its depleted stock following the catch limits introduced in 2015 — was turned down at a recent meeting of the Northern Committee of the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC) in Fukuoka due to opposition from two of its members. While Japan’s call for raising the quotas was made in response to complaints from domestic fishermen that their livelihood is threatened by the catch limits, the lack of consensus at the regional conference indicates that an increase was still premature given that the bluefin tuna stock remains far below its peak in the 1960s.

Pacific bluefin tuna are in high demand in Japan for sashimi and as ingredients for high-grade sushi. However, overfishing in the past several decades has depleted its stocks — to the point where extinction of the species has come to be feared. The stock of adult Pacific bluefin tuna capable of breeding declined after peaking at some 170,000 tons in 1961 — falling to as low as 12,000 tons in 2010.

Under the current WCPFC regulations introduced to recover the stock, its member states and areas will keep their catch of young tuna weighing less than 30 kg to no more than half the annual average over the period from 2002 to 2004, and that of the larger fish weighing at least 30 kg to no more than the 2002-2004 average. Japan’s catch quota is 4,007 tons for small Pacific bluefin tuna and 4,882 tons for the larger fish.

However, domestic fishermen who rely on the tuna catch say the catch limits put their livelihood in danger. Their complaints were exacerbated by prefecture-by-prefecture limits introduced by the Fisheries Agency in July to tighten its control on the tuna catch. For example, the quota allocated to the fisheries cooperative in the town of Oma, Aomori Prefecture — known nationwide for its catch of top-grade bluefin tuna — was reduced to about 70 percent of the haul last year. Fishermen from across the country staged a protest in Tokyo to let the government know of their opposition to the tightened catch limits.

Tokyo’s proposal at the Fukuoka gathering of the WCPFC’s Northern Committee, which counts Japan, South Korea, the United States and Taiwan among its 10 members, was made in response to such complaints from the domestic tuna fishermen. The proposal called for increasing the catch quotas for each member by 15 percent as early as in 2019 and enabling the members to carry over part of their unused quota — up to 5 percent of the upper limit — to the following year.

Japan based its proposal on a recent estimate generated from international scientific research that the stock of adult Pacific bluefin tuna made a moderate recovery from the bottom in 2010 to some 21,000 tons in 2016 — and that the WCPFC’s tentative target of raising the stock back to 43,000 tons by 2024 would be achievable even if the annual catch quota is expanded by 15 percent. Last year, the WCPFC adopted new rules that adjust catch quotas according to the extent of stock recovery.

However, the proposal could not obtain a required consensus endorsement by the committee due to opposition from the U.S. and Cook Islands, which argued that the bluefin tuna stock has not yet sufficiently recovered. True, the estimated stock as of 2016 is still far below the peak in the 1960s, and there is still a long way to go to achieve a long-term goal adopted by the WCPFC last year to boost the stock to 130,000 tons by 2034. The Fisheries Agency itself accepts that the Pacific bluefin tuna stock, which was put by the International Union for Conservation of Nature on its “red list” of species facing a high risk of extinction in 2014, is still at low levels.

As the world’s largest consumer of Pacific bluefin tuna, Japan needs to keep up efforts — many of which have just begun — to recover the stock to sufficiently sustainable levels by reconciling the interests of its fisheries business with the need to protect marine resources.

Tight control of the catch by domestic fishermen to ensure compliance with the international regulations — which will contribute to the credibility of Japan’s efforts at preservation against international skepticism that overconsumption by Japan is pushing some species to the brink of extinction — is inevitable in order to ensure long-term sustainability of the fisheries industry. Further efforts should be made to introduce a mechanism to certify the catch in order to stop the trade in illegally caught tuna, which would also enhance the effectiveness of the catch-control scheme.

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