Japan has a responsibility to save the bluefin tuna
Commentary by Hiroaki Katsukura
POINT OF VIEW / Hiroaki Katsukura: Japan must help eliminate bluefin overfishing
SPECIAL TO THE ASAHI SHIMBUN
The meeting of the parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), also known as the Washington Treaty, held in Qatar in March rejected a proposal to ban the international trade in Atlantic bluefin tuna, including those caught in the Mediterranean.
As president of a fisheries company in Kesennuma, Miyagi Prefecture, I was relieved by the CITES decision. But this does not mean we have nothing to worry about. On the contrary, the heavy responsibility of resource management has now fallen squarely on Japan's shoulders, as the world's largest consumer of bluefin tuna.
The controversy over the proposed ban on the bluefin tuna trade was mainly to do with overfishing using the roll-net method in the Mediterranean. Another question raised at the CITES meeting was the competence of the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) in resource management. In the current situation, I must say that the ICCAT is not doing a good job. There are gray zones and loopholes in the ICCAT's resource management mechanism.
To illustrate my point, let's take as an example a roll-net bluefin fishing vessel operating in foreign waters and observing the fishing quota allocated to the country concerned. The vessel takes its catch to a bluefin farm in another country, where the fish are fed and fattened until they are ready for shipment to the market. Throughout the process, the fish are never hauled out of the water.
Because it is impossible to count and weigh the fish in the nets at the time of their capture, the operator can only provide a visual estimate of the number and weight of the fish, not the actual tonnage of the catch. This means that, should the tonnage be found later to far exceed the quota, the excuse can be made that the fish had got bigger and fatter at the farm.
This looseness in the system is contributing to overfishing. Conservation groups maintain that the ICCAT will never be able to control overfishing no matter how stringent the fishing quotas. Their argument is completely legitimate.
The fishing quota is based on the weight of live fish at the time of their capture. The ICCAT has conversion rates for calculating the weight of live fish from fillets and other processed fish products.
I was quite surprised when I looked at the annual data compiled and published by the Japan Tuna Fisheries Cooperative Association (Nikkatsu Gyokyo), which converts the tonnage of imported tuna products on a customs-cleared basis into the tonnage of live fish at the time of their capture.
The association's data shows that, for the last four years, Japan's imports from Mediterranean nations have been way over the fishing quotas set for the nations by the ICCAT.
In 2006, in particular, the import volume of 24,000 tons was within the prescribed quota of about 28,000 tons. But this import volume was equivalent to 39,000 tons in terms of live fish--more than 10,000 tons above the quota. Conservation groups point out that overfishing will not stop so long as Japan keeps importing bluefin tuna, and they are right.
The problem is that nobody is looking at Japan's slipshod import control mechanism. The entire focus of the controversy is on overfishing caused by roll-net vessels operating in the Mediterranean.
One thing we must bear in mind is that bluefin tuna are being farmed at Japan's request, and that almost all the farmed stock is shipped to Japan. This means that Japan can help end the current overfishing by strictly limiting its imports to within the prescribed quotas on exporters. That, I believe, is the way Japan can fulfill its responsibility as the world's biggest consumer of bluefin tuna.
Recent advances in Japan's technology for farming bluefin tuna have enabled farm operators to commercially raise bluefin tuna all the way from roe to adulthood. I propose that some of these farm-bred-and-raised bluefin tuna should be released into the Mediterranean. Attaching ID tags to the fish would also contribute to research.
If Japan demonstrates its readiness to help raise the bluefin tuna population, instead of just devouring the fish, the rest of the world will come to see Japan in a new light, as a nation that does believe in preserving resources. That would hopefully make Japan less of a target for environmentalists.
Instead of sitting smug on the CITES decision of March, I believe it is time now for Japan to really start working on eliminating the structure that causes overfishing, including the nation's ineffectual import control mechanism.
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Hiroaki Katsukura is president of Katsukura Gyogyo Co., a tuna fishing company.