The Tokyo Foundation for Policy Research


The Tokyo Foundation for Policy Research

Stop Gambling with the Bluefin’s Survival

December 4, 2017

Five different types and grades of tuna sushi, with otoro on the right. ©Wilfred Y Wong/Photographer’s Choice RF/Getty Images
Five different types and grades of tuna sushi, with otoro on the right. ©Wilfred Y Wong/Photographer’s Choice RF/Getty Images

Senior Fellow Masayuki Komatsu rebukes the Japanese government for caving in to the demands of the domestic fishing industry and calls on Japanese consumers to say “no” to Pacific bluefin tuna.

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Pacific bluefin tuna stocks have plunged to dangerously low levels, and Japanese overfishing and overconsumption are the main culprits. Yet the Japanese government seems far more concerned with the short-sighted demands of the domestic fishing industry than with sustainable management of this resource. It is time for us to take responsibility for the bluefin’s survival.

Japan’s Bluefin Binge

Tuna and tuna-like species encompass the Pacific, Atlantic, and southern bluefin, as well as the albacore, skipjack, yellowfin, and bigeye. Pacific bluefin, beloved of sushi aficionados, are known to migrate from the seas around the Philippines and Taiwan all the way to the coast of Baja California in Mexico, passing through the waters off Japan on both the Pacific and Sea of Japan sides. Because they migrate through cold water, the large bluefin accumulate considerable fat, and the fatty portions, known as o-toro and chu-toro , are especially prized by Japanese diners.

Japanese consumption of tuna goes back at least 6,000 years, as evidenced by the presence of tuna bones in shell mounds dating from the prehistoric Jomon period. Tuna and negi (green onion) soup was a popular dish in the Edo period (1603-1868). But the widespread consumption of raw tuna is a relatively recent phenomenon, going back only 30-40 years, despite the fact that it is frequently portrayed as an integral part of Japanese food culture. Until then, it was difficult to maintain the color and freshness of tuna (particularly the fatty portions, which spoil quickly) from boat to market. With the advent of quick-freezing and other cold-chain technology in the 1970s and 1980s, this hurdle was overcome, and Japanese consumers went on a binge that continues today.

The total Pacific bluefin stock is now estimated at a mere 2.6% of the unfished level. Under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES), such a drop in population would ordinarily be sufficient to qualify a marine species as endangered. Yet almost no one in the Japanese government, let alone the fishing and seafood industries, seems overly concerned about the Pacific bluefin’s plight. Instead, they continue to dream up ways of evading regulation and boosting the catch further.

Blocking Scientific Debate

Multiple international organizations have called for the imposition of scientifically sound limits, such as an acceptable biological catch (ABC) or total acceptable catch (TAC), based on quantitative targets for long-term population recovery. However, the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission, which sets international rules for the harvesting of Pacific bluefin and other tuna species, has been slow to adopt such limits. This is largely because Japan has packed the commission’s Scientific Committee with its own scientists and chairs the Northern Committee, charged with drawing up concrete measures to manage Pacific bluefin stocks.

When it comes to bigeye, skipjack, and yellowfin, the members of the WCPFC have agreed to entrust the scientific evaluation of stock levels to an independent bodyーthe scientific divison of the Pacific Communityーand have used that data as the basis for objective deliberation of long-term management and conservation measures. Unfortunately, the management of Pacific bluefin has yet to be placed on such an independent scientific footing, and Japan has thus far obstructed the formulation of sound conservation measures.

The quotas that were instituted in 2015 based on Japan’s unilateral interpretation take as their baseline the average catch for the 2002-4 period, when the Pacific bluefin population was much larger. For young bluefin (that is, fish lighter than 30 kilograms), the quota is 4,007 tons, a 50% reduction from the 2002-4 level. For mature tuna, the catch is to remain under the 2002-4 level, 4,882 tons. Unfortunately, these quotas have no relationship to scientific reference points, a failing remarked on at a regular session of the WCPFC.

Failure of the Fisheries Agency

During the December 2016 regular session, the commission concluded that the Pacific bluefin stock had been severely depleted by fishery exploitation and that commercial fishers continued to overfish the remaining stock. It called on the Northern Committee to develop management measures for the long-term management of Pacific bluefin tuna at its 2017 meeting. That meeting was held in Busan from August 28 through September 1 this year.

Unfortunately, the proposal that Japan brought to the table (authored by the Fisheries Agency) was not merely inadequate but irresponsible. Under the plan, the catch level would be reduced only if resource surveys indicated that the probability of increasing the stock to 7% of unfished levels (up from 2.6%) by 2024 was 60% or lower. If, on the other hand, the probability of reaching that modest target was estimated at 65% or higher, catches could be expanded. Even assuming the validity of such estimates, this meant that the plan had a 35% chance of failure built into it. And even in the best case, the Pacific bluefin stock would be permitted to recover to only 7% of its original population. (By contrast, the United States proposed 20% as the rebuilding target.)

Under intense international pressure, Japan compromised slightly, agreeing to set the probability threshold at 75% instead of 65% and accepting a longer-term target of 20% recovery by 2034. Even so, Japanese negotiators succeeded in paving the way for bigger catches at a time when we really should be imposing a three-to-five-year fishing moratorium to ensure the species’ survival. This highlights the misguided priorities of the Fisheries Agency, which seems to believe that its mission is protecting the short-term profits of the fishing industry.

Commercial fishers are much the same everywhere; they want higher quotas when fish stocks are plentiful, and they want even higher quotas when fish stocks are depleted. We look to the government to take the long view and marshal science and logic to resist such short-sighted demands. The Fisheries Agency has shown itself woefully inadequate to the task.

Within the United States, environmental groups have been urging consumers and restaurants to boycott Pacific bluefin tuna and have called for the protection of the Pacific bluefin under the federal Endangered Species Act. Japanese citizens, too, need to join the chorus. There are many other varieties of tuna-like fish to choose from. It is time to remove Pacific bluefin from the menu.

Translated from “Zetsumetsu kiki no Taiheiyo kuromaguro: 3-5 nen kinryo de shigen kaifuku,” Sekai Nippo , August 31, 2017; slightly updated by the author. Courtesy of News World Communications.

    • 小松 正之/Masayuki Komatsu }
    • Masayuki Komatsu
    • Masayuki Komatsu
    Areas of Expertise
    Fisheries, whaling, marine and global ecosystems, leadership and negotiation theory

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