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Parties at int'l Pacific bluefin tuna meeting set to clash on conservation measures

Intermediary traders assess tuna at an auction at Tsukiji Market in Tokyo's Chuo Ward on Jan. 5, 2016. (Mainichi)

FUKUOKA -- As 10 countries and regions meet here to discuss the conservation and management of Pacific bluefin tuna in the Pacific Ocean, Japan and other large consumers of the fish are expected to clash with other parties including the U.S. over long-term goals.

    The Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC) kicked off its meeting in Fukuoka on the southwestern island of Kyushu on Aug. 29, with Japan proposing that urgent fishing restrictions be implemented when numbers of bluefin tuna under the age of 1 dip below a certain level. The participating countries hope to reach an agreement by the end of the session on Sept. 2.

    At the start of the meeting, Japanese delegates expressed an intention to lead the discussion on bluefin tuna conservation, as representatives of a country that consumes 70 percent of the world's bluefin tuna.

    "We hope to make some kind of step toward maintaining resources in the long term," said Masanori Miyahara, an adviser to the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (MAFF).

    In 1961, there were 160,000 metric tons of Pacific bluefin tuna 3 years or older in the sea. However, due to overfishing by Japanese fishing boats and a decline in roe production, the figure dipped to 11,000 metric tons by 1984. The numbers subsequently recovered, but when the farming of bluefin tuna became common from around the year 2000, farm operators frequently fished young bluefin tuna and raised them on farms. This led to a drop in adult bluefin tuna in the sea. Seine fishing of bluefin tuna during breeding season also increased, and recent figures from 2014 show that bluefin numbers have remained at low levels -- around 16,000 metric tons.

    In 2012, Japan took the step of freezing the number of domestic bluefin tuna farms. Beginning in 2015, the WCPFC restricted the fishing of small bluefin tuna under 30 kilograms to half the average amount caught between 2002 and 2004. The Fisheries Agency interprets the situation surrounding tuna as being "on the mend." But according to fishermen in Hokkaido, "there is no sense that tuna figures are growing." WCPFC has decided to draw up emergency restrictions in preparation for further deterioration in the situation, and is aiming to reach an official agreement using Japan's proposal as a foundation before the end of the year.

    Japan, which places importance on the continuation of bluefin tuna fishing, has proposed that only in cases in which the number of Pacific bluefin tuna under age 1 dip below approximately 4.5 million -- the lowest levels thus far -- for three consecutive years should emergency fishing restrictions be implemented. This, Japan argues, is because young bluefin tuna numbers can vary wildly, and even when levels have been low for two years in the past, they have recovered by the third year. Japan expects that with such measures in place, the annual volume of mature bluefin tuna will reach 40,000 metric tons by 2024. South Korea and Taiwan, which, with the exception of Japan, catch relatively large amounts of Pacific bluefin tuna, by and large agree with Japan's proposal.

    Meanwhile, the United States, which does not catch large volumes of Pacific bluefin tuna and whose fishing industries would not be greatly affected by restrictions placed on Pacific bluefin tuna fishing, advocates a long-term goal of bringing the amount of Pacific bluefin tuna to some 130,000 metric tons, nearly eight times the current figure, by 2030.

    Masayuki Komatsu, a senior fellow at the Tokyo Foundation think tank, who is well-versed in fishery resource management, is concerned about the direction in which the debate might be headed. He criticizes the Fisheries Agency's argument, saying, "Japan's proposal to avoid instituting restrictions unless there are low levels of fish for three consecutive years runs the risk of being interpreted by other countries as an indication that Japan does not care about conserving the world's resources."

    From a long-term perspective on resource conservation and management, international public opinion is likely to lean toward environmental conservationists' appeals to temporarily ban fishing.

    Even after the conclusion of the ongoing meeting, it doesn't appear as though Pacific bluefin tuna will suddenly become unavailable in Japan. However, due to the international popularity of Japanese cuisine, including sushi, tuna consumption is spiking in China and other Asian countries. One market source predicts that depending on the outcome of the great bluefin tuna debate, the only tuna that will be available may be very rare and expensive.

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