Japan urges industry-wide reduction of tuna effort

Most large yellowfin tuna caught by long liners are used for sashimi, but almost all small yellowfin and other tuna species caught by purse seine vessels are canned. Most large yellowfin tuna caught by long liners are used for sashimi, but almost all small yellowfin and other tuna species caught by purse seine vessels are canned.

Over the last decade tuna longliners have taken commendable steps to protect stocks of valuable tuna species, but the Japan-based Organisation for the Promotion of Responsible Tuna Fisheries is extremely worried that purse seiners are fishing at dangerously high levels.

Efforts to reduce overfishing of prized bluefin tuna appear to have had some effect following the decision of the International Commision for the Conservation of Atlantic Tuna (ICCAT) to cut fishing quotas for both Atlantic bluefin and southern bluefin tuna in 2009.

In spite of the reduction in bluefin tuna supplies, restaurant and fish shop retail prices for bluefin sashimi have remained largely unchanged this year in Japan, where 80% of the world’s sashimi-grade tuna is consumed.

Japan’s economic downturn is thought to be responsible for bluefin sashimi prices remaining stable with many consumers trading down to eat cheaper sashimi products instead. However, concern is growing about the impact of purse seine fishing on tuna stocks, especially following news that price conscious Japanese consumers are eating albacore as a low cost type of sashimi, a tuna species that previously had been considered suitable only for canning.

With global purse seine tuna catch now known to include sashimi-grade tuna, the need to control purse seine tuna fishing increasingly is accepted by the international community, particularly in the Pacific where the mass harvest of juvenile tuna is occurring and illegal tuna purse seine vessels continue to operate.

According to the Tokyo-headquartered Organisation for the Promotion of Responsible Tuna Fisheries (OPRT), the global sashimi tuna market is estimated at somewhere between 360,000 tonnes to 500,000 tonnes a year due to the growing global consumption of sashimi as Japanese cuisine gains in popularity around the world.

Sashimi consumption in Japan is estimated at around 300,000 to 400,000 tonnes a year by the government’s Fisheries Agency while other markets include the United States where from 30,000 to 50,000 tonnes of sashimi is consumed each year and South Korea where about 15,000 to 20,000 tonnes of tuna sashimi is eaten annually.

“ICCAT reduced the bluefin tuna catch quota last year and supplies reduced, so people expected bluefin sashimi prices would rise but they did not increase because of the economic situation and because Japanese consumers do not want to pay,” said Yuichiro Harada, managing director of OPRT.

“But supplies are getting short because of the 40% cut in Atlantic bluefin and southern bluefin tuna catch quotas. The bigeye tuna quota also was cut, mostly in the western and central Pacific region by the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission, with 10% annual quota cuts for 2009, 2010 and 2011.”

Japanese fishery experts believe Japan’s domestic sashimi market remains stable overall in terms of size in spite of reduced supply of more expensive sashimi tuna species. Many supermarkets now sell albacore as low-priced sashimi.

However, this developing trend has not been recorded in official fishery statistics so far.

“The fatty part of albacore is very tasty and the price is low compared with bigeye and yellowfin tuna,” Harada explained. “Consumers appreciate this. Until now Japanese sashimi market statistics have not included albacore but now albacore must also be counted.”

“Purse seine fishermen sell some selected tuna to the sashimi market. These tuna are cheap and in the past they have not been counted in fishing industry statistics; but this amount also is increasing.”

“Supplies of bluefin and bigeye tuna are getting short because of regulatory measures but the supply of cheaper tuna is getting popular. This situation, if properly analysed, shows the Japanese tuna market is healthy and stable in size.”

Legitimising effort

OPRT was formed by the Japanese government and the tuna industry in 2000 to establish a sustainable global longline tuna fishing industry and to stamp out illegal longline fishing and overfishing of major sashimi tuna species, including Atlantic bluefin, southern bluefin and bigeye tuna.

Fishing associations and fishing boat registration agencies in 12 countries have registered 1,067 large scale longline fishing vessels with OPRT representing more than 90% of the world’s large scale tuna longliners over 24 metres in length.

Concerned at the decline in juvenile tuna numbers, OPRT has asked Regional Fisheries Management Organisations (RFMOs) around the world to limit the catch of juvenile tuna by purse seiner fleets operating in their regional waters.

OPRT recently made a presentation at International Workshop on RFMO Management of Tuna Fisheries held in Brisbane from 29 June to 1 July 2010, explaining how OPRT organised its fishing vessel scrapping programme to reduce longliner numbers and overfishing by tuna longliners.

The presentation followed complaints by OPRT members that their catches are declining due to the large number of juvenile tuna being caught by purse seiner fishing vessels.

“Sashimi quality is important as tuna sashimi is consumed raw,” Harada explained. “Juvenile tuna is not good for sashimi as sashimi requires adult tuna with fat and maturity. But purse seiners catch all tuna as they cook and can most of it.”

Most tuna caught by purse seine vessels for canning is skipjack and yellowfin, though some purse seine-caught yellowfin is commercial grade sashimi quality.

Longline-caught Atlantic bluefin and southern bluefin are used for the finest sashimi, followed by bigeye tuna, yellowfin and albacore.

OPRT is urging RFMOs to consider adopting a similar strategy to OPRT, which over the past decade has managed to secure the near elimination of illegal, unreported and unregulated large-scale tuna longline fishing vessels through its registration programme.

A reduction in the global large scale tuna purse seine fleet also is being sought by OPRT members. In 2004, both Japan and Taiwan have reduced their longliner fleet sizes to ensure compliance with smaller tuna catch quotas and prevent overfishing. OPRT members believe a reduction in tuna purse seine fishing vessel numbers also is needed to prevent tuna overfishing.

At the Brisbane RFMO tuna fisheries management workshop, the Japanese government proposed a reduction in the purse seine fleets of seven distant water fishing nations, including Japan, that fish under the framework of the Western and Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC).

However, Japan’s proposal for a 20% reduction in the seven nations’ tuna purse seine fleets by 2013 or an equivalent reduction in the capacity of those fleets operating in the western and central Pacific failed to win sufficient support, leaving the issue of how to solve tuna purse seine fishing over capacity unresolved.

Juvenile bycatch

The global longline tuna fishing industry has achieved better control since the setting up of OPRT with most problems now caused by the 70 to 100 large scale longliners that still have not registered with OPRT.

While the global longline tuna fishing catch is stable at around 650,000 tonnes a year, the size of the tuna purse seine catch has risen enormously during the past three decades including the wasteful bycatch of juvenile tuna and is giving widespread cause for concern.

Reducing the purse seine tuna catch is unlikely to be easy, however, as many Pacific island nations are looking to develop tuna fishing to support economic development as for some nations, fisheries is one of their most valuable resources.

In 1980 the reported tuna catch in the WCPFC area was just 120,000 tonnes. This figure rose to 1 million tonnes in 1991 and in 2007 reached 1.74 million tonnes, accounting for 65% of the global purse seine tuna catch of around 2.6 million tonnes.

Taiwanese purse seiners registered with various Pacific nations are believed to be responsible for the large increase in tuna catch in the WCFPC area. Now several Pacific countries, including Papua New Guinea, are looking to establish their own tuna canning industries and want to catch tuna in their own territorial waters to supply their tuna canning lines.

“It is their right and there is a need for developing countries to develop their own tuna industries. This is respected by the international community, but the point is tuna resources,” Harada said. “If tuna stocks keep declining and commercial tuna fishing cannot continue then it is an issue for both advanced and developing countries. The stability of tuna resources is important. Everyone recognises the resources are overfished and this must be reduced.”

The different interests of the developing fishing nations and the advanced countries with tuna fishing fleets is partly responsible for the present impasse in finding an agreement to reduce the global purse seine tuna fishing catch. At the heart of the problem is the fact that one or several developed tuna fishing countries has to accept a reduction in their fishing catch if Pacific island nations’ own catch is to grow.

Following discussions by RFMOs about the tuna purse seine fleet overcapacity, the FAO is also holding a meeting shortly to discuss proposals to control tuna purse seine fisheries within sustainable limits. The use of fish aggregating devices (FADs) will be one of the topics considered as these are blamed for attracting juvenile tuna to purse seine nets along with other bycatch including turtles and sharks.

Maximising value

One aspect of purse seine tuna fishing that has received attention recently is the fact that bigeye and yellowfin tuna caught by purse seine in the eastern Pacific Ocean are not achieving their full economic value due to poor fisheries management.

Both species are caught in sizes too small to take advantage of their growth potential and cannot be sold for higher prices that larger tuna obtain in the sashimi market.

While large bigeye and yellowfin caught by long liners are used for sashimi, almost all of the smaller bigeye, yellowfin and skipjack caught by purse seine vessels are canned.

“In the eastern Pacific a lot of small tuna are caught and they earn low prices but prices for longliner caught tuna are much higher,” Harada said. “So how to get the maximum economic value? Reduce the purse seine catch and increase the longliner tuna catch.”

Currently the international committee of RFMOs is trying to introduce a global identity system for tuna fishing boats so the total global tuna fishing capacity can be fully assessed and the heavily fished areas identified, enabling an international agreement to be introduced to control tuna fishing.

“There is no OPRT equivalent for the purse seine tuna fishing industry,” Harada said. “Japan will suggest an OPRT-type model for the tuna purse seine fishing industry. We would like the same kind of organisation to control the world purse seine tuna fishing industry.”

OPRT’s success has been achieved gradually over the past decade by persuading longline tuna fishing nations that their common interest in pursuing sustainable long line tuna fisheries is best achieved by cooperating so that strict fishing regulations and the reduction of catch quotas for major species such as Atlantic bluefin, southern bluefin and bigeye tuna in the western central Pacific Ocean can be successfully implemented.

More than 90% of large scale tuna longline fishing vessels worldwide over 24 metres in length are registered with OPRT and are fitted with ultra low temperature cold storage facilities to supply high-grade frozen tuna to the sashimi market.

The 1,067 longline vessels registered with OPRT belong to member tuna fisheries organisations in Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, Philippines, Indonesia, China, Ecuador, Seychelles, Vanatu and Fiji. Recently organisations from the Federated States of Micronesia and Malaysia have joined OPRT with the intention of developing large scale longline tuna fishing industries.

Decommissioning vessels

Efforts to ensure sustainable longline tuna fisheries have included scrapping almost 700 longline vessels during the past decade. In 2004 the Japanese government scrapped 198 longliners to leave a fleet of 275 while Taiwan scrapped 238 longliners leaving 359.

Following a reduction in bluefin and bigeye catch quotas in 2009, Japan scrapped 87 longliners last year to ensure compliance with the lower catch quotas while the Taiwanese government scrapped 160 tuna longliners following recommendations from ICCAT to reduce the number of vessels to meet new fishing regulations.

Part of OPRT’s success lies in the fact that around 80% of the world’s sashimi is eaten in Japan where the government has passed laws making the import of illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) tuna a criminal offence.

For longliners or purse seine vessels over 24 metres long, only tuna caught by vessels registered with the RFMO where the tuna are caught and managed by the flagged government can be sold in Japan provided documentation accompanies the catch showing the tuna’s origin, the vessel and fishing method.

According to Harada, the resulting loss of business has forced about 250 IUU vessels to stop operations since OPRT was set up. Efforts continue to ensure all tuna sashimi consumed in Japan comes from sustainable tuna fisheries.

“It took 10 years to deal with IUU fishing vessels,” Harada said. “First it was a voluntary ban on importing their catch but that did not work. Then we issued an IUU black list and that did not work. Then we did a white list, a positive list of vessels and that is working.

“No measure is perfect. We must keep on monitoring and trying to close loopholes.”

Meanwhile, research continues in Japan to develop fish farming methods that allow bluefin tuna to be bred and reared in captivity for their entire lifecycle.

Future catch quotas could restrict access to tuna fry making it difficult for bluefin tuna farming to continue using existing methods. Private fishery companies including Maruha Nichiro Holdings Inc as well as Kinki University are working on increasing the survival rate of tuna fry raised from eggs for tuna farming from egg to adult is viable as a business.

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