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Tuna collapse fears fail to curb Japan's appetite

By Malcolm Foster

Associated Press

LAST UPDATED: 05:38 a.m. HST, Feb 28, 2013

TOKYO » It is the king of sushi, one of the most expensive fish in the world — and dwindling so rapidly that some fear it could vanish from restaurant menus within a generation.

Yet there is little alarm in Japan, the country that consumes about 80 percent of the world's bluefin tuna. Japanese fisheries experts blame cozy ties between regulators and fishermen and a complacent media for failing to raise public awareness.

"Nobody really knows the bad state bluefin tuna is in," veteran sushi chef Kazuo Nagayama said from his snug, top-end sushi bar in Tokyo's Shimbashi district, a popular area for after-work socializing. "I don't think it'll disappear, but we might not be able to catch any. It's obvious we need to set quotas."

Catching bluefin tuna, called "hon-maguro" here, is a lucrative business. A single full-grown specimen can sell for 2 million yen, or $22,000, at Tokyo's sprawling Tsukiji fish market. Japanese fishermen are vying with Korean, Taiwanese and Mexican counterparts for a piece of a $900 million a year wholesale market.

Fish dealers at Tsukiji market say the number of bluefin sold at early morning auctions has fallen over the past 10 to 15 years, but most are confident the supply will never run out. Sushi bars and supermarkets still readily sell the fish, which is considered a special treat that families might splurge on once every month or two. There's no government campaign to encourage people to rein in their appetites for the iconic Japanese food.

"I have seen some reports on TV about their numbers falling, but I really haven't thought about cutting back on eating hon-maguro," said Sumire Baba, a Tokyo homemaker. "I guess I'm optimistic they'll recover."

A scientific assessment released in January found that Pacific bluefin spawning stocks — a key measure of adults that can reproduce — have plummeted by about three-quarters over the past 15 years to match historic lows last seen in the early 1980s. It estimated that the species has dwindled to just 3.6 percent of its original population, and that more than 90 percent of fish caught were juveniles between the ages of 0 and 3, before they reach reproductive maturity.

The report, compiled by the International Scientific Committee for Tuna and Tuna-like Species in the Northern Pacific and based on data through 2010, received only scant coverage in the Japanese press.

The Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan's largest newspaper, ran a brief story that ignored the drop in numbers and focused on a projection offered by the report's authors that Pacific stocks could triple by 2030 if current "effort limits" were fully enforced — coverage that a senior Fisheries Agency official blasted as "misleading."

News reports earlier this year about the record 155.4 million yen ($1.76 million) auction sale of a Pacific bluefin at the Tsukiji market focused mostly on the exorbitant price and the buyer — the owner of a sushi chain — with little context about the species' falling numbers.

The drop follows similar plunges in the other two bluefin species, the Atlantic and the southern, which are now protected by catch quotas that experts say need to be applied to their Pacific cousins as well.

Without stricter caps, "there is a high likelihood that Pacific bluefin will become less available to Japanese consumers," said Masayuki Komatsu, a former senior Fisheries Agency official. Japan faces two choices, he said: Immediately impose catch quotas or "stop eating the bluefin to protect it."

Overfishing of the Atlantic bluefin, much of it shipped to Japan, got so bad that an export ban was proposed in 2010 at a meeting of the 175-nation Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). The proposal was rejected, and Atlantic bluefin stocks recovered slightly last year after quotas were imposed, although environmental groups say the population remains fragile.

While the media plays a role, the Fisheries Agency, domestic scientists and fishing industry are mainly responsible for failing to address the problem and keeping the public in the dark, Komatsu and other critics say. During his tenure at the agency until 2005, regulators were often more intent on protecting fishermen than marine resources, he said, and they were also reluctant to publicize information about declining fish stocks or impose catch limits for fear of upsetting fishermen or politicians.

"Government officials don't want to accept the facts," Komatsu said. "Their constituents are fishermen. ... In order to be successful as a government official, you have to listen to the fishermen because they are closely connected to the politicians. It's all very short-sighted."

Toshio Katsukawa, a fisheries professor at Mie University in western Japan, said the industry has been allowed to pursue indiscriminate fishing for years.

"This is undermining Japan's own national interests," he said. "We have an international responsibility in this matter. It's a problem if we are not able to responsibly catch and consume these fish."

That may have been a valid criticism in the past, acknowledged Masanori Miyahara, the deputy director-general of the JapanFisheries Agency. But over the past five or six years "our policy has changed," he said in an interview in his Tokyo office. "Now we are in the driver's seat."

"Previously, there was almost no control over the bluefin catch because so many fishermen were catching them. The JFA just gave up," Miyahara said. "But now we are in a position of control. We are serious about fishing management."

He noted that limits imposed in 2011 on domestic fishermen using large, encircling "purse seine" nets — which scoop up vast amounts of fish, including many young ones — during the summer spawning season in the Sea of Japan have reduced the catch of juveniles by more than a quarter.

Japan also has joined 2011 "effort limits" — such as limiting the number of vessels — called for by the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission, the regional fisheries body that monitors the western two-thirds of the Pacific Ocean. The commission will meet in Tokyo in September to consider whether to strengthen catch restrictions.

Japan also has placed caps on the number of tuna farms, which take young tuna caught at sea and raise them in coastal waters, and is registering its 13,000 independent fishermen to better monitor their catch, Miyahara said.

But conservation groups say the measures are full of loopholes and not well enforced, while Japanese fishermen complain that South Korean boats are not similarly constrained.

"We wonder what the point is if others can catch the fish we can't," said Makoto Hotai, head of the Japan Purse Seiners Association, based in the southern city of Fukuoka.

While Japanese consumers are very sensitive about food safety and quality, awareness about resource management is still not very prevalent. Major retailer Aeon Co. has a lineup of 50 products with a special blue label from the Marine Stewardship Council, which certifies sustainable marine foods. However, MSC-labeled products account for only 3 percent of Aeon's total fish sales.

"Eating fish is a fundamental part of Japanese culture," said Kozo Ishii, the program director for MSC in Japan. "That fish is readily available is taken for granted."

A handful of U.S. and European sushi restaurants have removed bluefin from their menus, but Nagayama, the sushi chef, hasn't heard of that happening in Japan.

He tries to minimize the amount of the fish he uses, but says he needs to have it on hand because customers request it. A single piece of pink "o-toro" fatty tuna goes for 2,000 yen, or $21, at his shop, although customers visiting "conveyor belt" sushi shops can grab much lower quality bluefin for 100 yen, or just over a dollar.

"We're a top-end sushi bar, so we need to have it," said the 71-year-old sushi chef, who has written three books about fish. "If we don't, we can't really do business."

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nippy68 wrote:
its all about money. period. discovery channel showed how one foreign country is rounding up tuna like cattle with huge nets taking everthing. if the united nations dont take note of this way of fishing then the ocean will be depleted. money the root to all evil.
on February 28,2013 | 05:15AM
serious wrote:
The LOVE of money if the root of all evil. Everybody needs money and we're not all evil.
on February 28,2013 | 06:36AM
al_kiqaeda wrote:
Nothing inherently wrong with money.
on February 28,2013 | 11:31AM
akuboatcaptain wrote:
i beg to differ, inherently within money is corruption.
on February 28,2013 | 11:51AM
akuboatcaptain wrote:
the modern world is a market based economy, where finite resources goes to the highest bidder. it's true with everything, from food to oil to land till it's all gone and they move on. tilapia sushi eaters of da whirld unite!
on February 28,2013 | 06:43AM
HD36 wrote:
Currency, backed by nothing but government promises can be printed and thus increased at will, while finite resources can't be increased without effort. When you have more currencies chasing the same number of fish, prices go up.
on February 28,2013 | 07:28AM
akuboatcaptain wrote:
the changes in money supply may have a longterm effect on price levels, but in this case i believe it's the severe shortage of product coupled with the insatiable demand for it.
on February 28,2013 | 07:45AM
HD36 wrote:
A Louie Vitton hand bag jumped 15% in one week after Shinzo Abe announced Japan would print a quadrillion yen to increase inflation in Japan. Flour went up 9% in a week. It's the easiest way for governments to steal from their citizens.
on February 28,2013 | 09:00AM
akuboatcaptain wrote:
just because a few items go up in price, does not correlate to the money supply being increased. if the supply were to be drastically increased, hyperinflation would result, hence prices for ALL things would skyrocket, not just brand name handbags or a bag of flour.
on February 28,2013 | 10:07AM
akuboatcaptain wrote:
you might be able to make a correlation between a spike in the money supply, and a few well chosen items. creating money is not creating an economy by increasing prices, creating money is creating debt, where most of those new yen will be bought and sold around the world.
on February 28,2013 | 10:15AM
loquaciousone wrote:
Nat Geo has a show on television that promotes catching as many tuna as possible.
on February 28,2013 | 07:33AM
souzaboy wrote:
I stopped eating poke in the last year for this reason. It was real hard but I'm trying to do my part since the ocean is everything to us.
on February 28,2013 | 08:23AM
iwanaknow wrote:
Foodland use to have poki at $8/lb, now it's doubled.
on February 28,2013 | 09:48AM
al_kiqaeda wrote:
People think things like the rail and transit oriented development are harmless, or even "good" for Hawaii. This food shortage is just the tip of of a very large iceberg. Wait until we go over the tipping point and the basics like fresh water becomes a problem in Hawaii.
on February 28,2013 | 11:35AM
Sunny wrote:
The Japanese are very innovative, they'll figure out a way to make talapia taste like bluefin tuna.
on February 28,2013 | 08:44AM
loquaciousone wrote:
McDonald's already made us believe that we're eating fish when we order a filet-o fish and chicken when we order a chicken McNuggets.
on February 28,2013 | 09:09AM
al_kiqaeda wrote:
Oh NO they haven't!!! They don't resemble any fish or chicken I've eaten lately.
on February 28,2013 | 11:36AM
akuboatcaptain wrote:
ha! you made me laugh.
on February 28,2013 | 11:51AM
nuuanusam wrote:
Eventually, we'll be eating farmed tuna.
on February 28,2013 | 09:30AM
2_centz wrote:
This comment has been deleted.
on February 28,2013 | 10:27AM
akuboatcaptain wrote:
the japanese do not have a valid military, a war would benefit us as we can take what little resources they have.
on February 28,2013 | 11:18AM
loquaciousone wrote:
The problem is the somewhere along the line something got lost in the translation. People now think sushi means fish and it's become very popular on the mainland elsewhere. Now if we educated them that sushi actually means vinegared rice, that should stop all this nonsense and I won't have to pay $15 a pound for my poke.
on February 28,2013 | 10:49AM
loquaciousone wrote:
The problem is the somewhere along the line something got lost in the translation. People now think sushi means fish and it's become very popular on the mainland elsewhere. Now if we educated them that sushi actually means vinegared rice, that should stop all this nonsense and I won't have to pay $15 a pound for my poke.
on February 28,2013 | 10:49AM
akuboatcaptain wrote:
you're paying seasonally higher prices due to scarcity, spring/summer see lower prices due to abudance, both of fish and fishermen. i'm trying to convince that other guy up top that scarcity, whether real or manipulated controls prices. not more dollars, not misconstrued notions of what sushi is or is not, but supply, or lack thereof.
on February 28,2013 | 11:16AM
loquaciousone wrote:
You mean demand means nothing? Economics 101 says that supply and demand are the basis for price. When supply exceeds demand, prices fall. When demand exceeds supply than prices rise. If people stop eating fish, you can cut all the supply off and the price won't rise.
on February 28,2013 | 11:29AM
akuboatcaptain wrote:
you're correct, i didn't mention demand because demand for fresh fish is always high here as well as in japan.
on February 28,2013 | 11:43AM
al_kiqaeda wrote:
Hey ABC, you've been out fishing lately? Used to be that any schmuck with a boat could catch at least a little bit.of fish. Not now days.
on February 28,2013 | 11:39AM
akuboatcaptain wrote:
my boat is down for a coupla weeks. i don't fish around oahu anymore, too little fish and too many idiots.
on February 28,2013 | 11:48AM
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