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The Problem of Overfishing: Can Japan's Attempts to Lower Catch Limits Provide a Solution?

07 March 2016

Japan has decided to tighten its rules on overfishing this year. With fishery resources around the country at increasing risk of being depleted, Bonnie Waycott reports for The Fish Site on Japan's attempts to address an increasingly serious global problem.

On Tuesday January 5th, the first auction of the year was held in Tokyo's Tsukiji Fish Market. A custom that takes place at the beginning of every year, a 200kg bluefin tuna from Aomori Prefecture in northern Japan was bought by a Tokyo-based sushi restaurant chain operator for 14 million yen, or around 116,600 US dollars. However, due to the continued shortfall in bluefin tuna catches, it is feared that this annual auction may soon become a thing of the past.

Japan's decision to address the problem of depleting fish stocks came in the wake of this annual custom, and tuna are not the only fish in danger of disappearing. Other species are facing similar risks, and Japan's fishery and seafood self-sufficiency rate is continuing to fall as a result.

The figures say more. Those from the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries show that in 2014, Japan's bluefin tuna catch was about 11,000 tonnes, down 20% from 10 years ago. In 2014 the fish's average wholesale price also increased by about 10%. Back in 2012, the stock of Pacific bluefin was around 20,000 metric tonnes compared to around 100,000 tonnes in the 1960s, while other species have also been affected; mackerel stocks in the northern Sea of Japan were around 85,000 tonnes compared to 800,000 tonnes or so in the 1990s.

For decades, Japan set catch limits that went beyond levels seen as sustainable, with relatively lax standards being justified as necessary to protect the livelihood of fishing communities. But as the problem of declining fish stocks began to get more serious, Japan decided to take action. One of the measures the Fisheries Agency took was to establish a cap on the number of annual fish catches to help restore the amount of fishery resources over time. The Total Allowable Catch System, or TAC System, is currently applied to seven types of fish including saury, mackerel and sardine. There are also individual quotas in place for big ships that catch mackerel in the Pacific and cuts on catching young Pacific bluefin tuna, to help them reproduce. Japan also put a noncompulsory cap in six fishing blocs on catches of bluefin tuna less than 30kg, and is aiming to strengthen its efforts this year. Further TAC standards are also being considered, for example on species such as Pacific cod even though its amount has been relatively stable.

Japan also wants to protect fisheries resources to stabilize market prices. Depending on the volume of their catches and size of the fish, saury and mackerel prices have been fluctuating wildly. For example, raw saury prices came to around 84 yen per kilogram at major fishing ports in December 2014, down 40% from 2013. But in September 2015, the price went up dramatically to 305 yen per kilogram at the start of the saury fishing season. Japan is hoping that stabilizing the stock of Pacific saury in Japan's oceans will narrow such price fluctuations.

In the meantime, industry observers say that aquafarming technology may be a possible answer to preserving fishery resources. Kinki University's successful attempt to become the first in the world to cultivate bluefin tuna is well known and companies such as trading house Mitsubishi have been taking steps to commercialize it. Wholesale prices of full farmed bluefin tuna at Kinki University comes to around 2,000yen per kilogram. It's a price that stays relatively stable throughout the year, while the tuna itself has become popular at restaurants directly run by the university. Eel is another species in Japan that is prized as a delicacy but also endangered. Its price has climbed in recent years as eel hauls plunged due to overfishing and pollution. In light of this, Kinki University has also been taking steps to develop a type of catfish that tastes like eel to save the declining eel population.

Bonnie Waycott

Bonnie Waycott
Freelance journalist

Based in Tokyo, Bonnie became interested in marine life when she learned how to snorkel on the Sea of Japan coast near her mother's hometown. With a keen interest in marine conservation, fish farming and sustainable oceans, she's a freelance writer who covers diving and marine-related issues in Japan and is currently taking an MSc in Sustainable Aquaculture.

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