Over Fishing

Reading Rowan Hooper’s article in the Japan Times (Thanks to Daniel Kremers for the link) about Whale hunting and the stockpiling of whale meat (because there’s so little demand) reminded me of an article I wrote for the Japan Times last autumn about Tuna fishing in Japan, that was not taken up. So, i’ve posted said article below.

Link to Rowan Hooper’s article: http://search.japantimes.co.jp/cgi-bin/fe20100912rh.html


 When it comes to our oceans most Japan-related actions, inactions, bans and complaints have been related to whales. In many ways Japan has almost become a maritime pariah state over its continued “research.” Recent activity in Europe suggests the fight over aquatic life is about to spread to other species. Ones seen every day in Japanese restaurants across the country.

            On the 8th of September the European Commission decided to back a campaign to help protect Atlantic Bluefin Tuna from over-fishing. They will seek to place the Bluefin tuna on a list for protected species known as Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species or Cites. This will put it on a par with the Red Panda, Dugong and the Japanese Otter.

            The EC has been able to come to a decision after the EU Fisheries Commissioner, Joe Borg of Malta, backed down in a dispute with Stavros Dimas, the EU Environment Commissioner. The call for a ban actually came from an unlikely source, the micro-state of Monaco. Dimas backed it while Borg tried to defend the fishing industries in Malta, Italy and Spain that depend on tuna catches by setting fishing quotas at three times the recommended level. In the end they have both agreed to push for a de facto ban.

            How did we get here and why does it concern the readers of the Japan Times? Surely this is a European affair? According to Martin Hickman in The Independent Bluefin Tuna is down to “18 per cent of its 1970 level.” It is simply being over fished. The International Convention on the Conservation of Atlantic Tuna (ICCAT) puts the blame on long line and farm fishing where the tuna is caught live and fattened in farms before being sold to market.

            Statistics show again and again that Japan is consuming more fish than any other nation per capita. A UN report published by its Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) shows the world average for fish consumption to be 13kg per person a year. The European and American average is 22kg. Meanwhile, the Japanese average is a whopping 66kg. This is three times the second highest average. No other nation on this planet comes any where close to rivalling Japan for its over consumption of fish products.

            If we look at just Tuna, Japan catches 25 per cent of all Pacific tuna and imports 90 per cent of the tuna caught in Europe. Despite being an island nation, an archipelago at that, Japan is a net importer of fish. It has over fished its own stock and needs to import seaweed and shrimp from other East Asian nations. For example, 86 per cent of The Philippine’s and 20 per cent of Taiwan’s shrimp end up in Japan.

            There have been mild attempts at curtailing over fishing in the Pacific. Greenpeace has proven that despite a two month ban on FAD (Fish Aggregation Devices) some Japanese ships are still using them with immunity. They also note that it is not just the Atlantic Bluefin that is in trouble, “Pacific Bigear and Yellowfin are already fished beyond their limits.” The decline in fish stock is becoming apparent even in glutinous Japan. Hickman notes tuna at Tokyo’s fish market, which handles approximately 800,000 tons of fish per annum, is handling smaller tuna than normal. Meanwhile the Tokyo based Organisation for the Promotion of Responsible Tuna Fisheries (OPRT) notes that last year’s tuna sashimi stock was down 20 per cent at 156,000 tons.

            The blame does not entirely lay with our greedy ways. Saskia Richartz of Greenpeace puts it down to “disgraceful fisheries management.” It can be argued that a ban on Bluefin tuna will give the species breathing space in order to rebuild its population. It would also allow Europe to reorganise its fisheries management.

            Being placed on the Cites Appendix will mean all trade in Bluefin Tuna meat will be prohibited. This puts it on a par with tiger skins, rhino horns and elephant tusks. The LDP had said it would fight the listing. Responsibility now passes to the newly elected DPJ. We do not know how it will react. It is now certain that Europe will vote as a 27 member bloc to pass the resolution. However, the convention is not binding. States adhere to it voluntarily.

            What does this mean for Japan? Firstly, even if it chooses to continue its own tuna fishing, which, it almost certainly will in the face of international pressure to act responsibly, Japan will loose all of its European imports. As mentioned above, Japan imports of 90 per cent of tuna caught in Europe. In 2006, Europe caught 19,036 tons of Bluefin tuna according to the ICCAT. Japan would have lost 17,132 tons from its markets.

            Yuichiro Harada, the managing director of OPRT, believes that Japan has “developed Bluefin tuna farming” and that “farming sites may cover the demand of Japanese consumers.” It seems unlikely that these new farms can cover such a shortfall. However, as he also points out, the demand for fish is already falling. The supply of sashimi grade tuna has fallen from 450,000 tons in 2006 to an estimated 340,000 tons this year. Normally this would push prices up but demand has also fallen. In addition Japan’s economic woes means the price of premium Bluefin Tuna has fallen 20 per cent this year.

            This may turn the question of what happens next into a cultural one. Few question the idea of whale populations being in severe decline. It remains emotive in Japan for cultural reasons. It is possible that old fashioned thoughts on diet may keep the fishermen going after tuna. There may be a return to long-line fishing and an increased usage of FADs. But, Harada believes that significant competition from other premium meats will fill the void left by Bluefin.

            “Bluefin tuna itself is the most expensive material for sashimi and sushi. But, Bluefin tuna must compete with other food stuffs, such as beef from the USA, Australian cultured prawns, sea bream for sashimi et cetera. In short, various delicious high grade food stuffs are sufficiently supplied in Japan at lower prices nowadays. In the old days, Bluefin tuna sashimi was the top food stuff but now it is only one of many delicious foods”

            A question this raises is, are these replacement renewable and stable food sources? Or will further action need to be taken in the future to help protect other species from similar over-fishing? Japan’s love of premium Bluefin tuna may have led it to the brink but is it the tip of an iceberg when it comes to fish stocks around the world’s oceans?

            Also, this is not like whales or tigers. The ban will not be in place ad infinitum. It is a temporary measure and one the Japanese government should back for two reasons. Firstly, it will allow stock to recover and secondly, it will allow the country to build tuna farms, as mentioned by Yuichiro Harada, to make Japan self-sufficient. However, as Richartz says any country that that opposes the ban “is clearly putting short-term commercial interests above the survival of the species.”

            We cannot wait for the Japanese government to act responsibly and pass good intentions down, from top to bottom. It is our duty as consumers to stop eating endangered species like Bluefin Tuna and look towards more stable food sources like poultry, pork and beef. Sashimi and sushi connoisseurs will be dreading the ICCAT tuna stock report in November and the Cites meeting in March. We should not wait until then to start making a difference.