Bluefin tuna fishing ban considered

Traditional fisher-men are appealing for government interven-tion as the number of fish dramatically shrinks.

As a boy, Yoshio Yamada would stand
on the docks at Misaki and watch in awe as his fisherman father heaved giant
bluefin tuna off his wooden boat.

The waters around the small
seaport, south of Tokyo, offered such an abundance of the mighty fish that they
had transformed Misaki into the second biggest tuna-processing harbour in

”Back then the work was
prosperous,” recalls the 62-year-old, a famous tuna chef who has run the
Kurobatei restaurant for 39 years. ”But that’s changed now. Realistically the
ippon-zuri (rod-and-reel) fisherman will catch five tuna a year and make about
3 million yen ($36,000). The seas are out of balance, and the tuna catch … gets
lower every year.”

The bounty began to shrink, Yamada
says, with the spread in the 1970s of industrial fishing by large trawlers
capable of scooping up thousands of fish. The practice decimated the ippon-zuri
industry and ravaged stocks of bluefin, prized in Japan as an ingredient in
sushi and sashimi.

So serious is the threat to the
population of Atlantic bluefin tuna that member nations of the Convention on
International Trade in Endangered Species are will consider a temporary ban on
international trade in the fish at a two-week 
meeting in Qatar that began Friday. Japan has declared it will oppose
the move.

Tokyo’s intransigence has
infuriated conservationists. In 2008 diners consumed 43,000 tonnes of tuna –
roughly 80 per cent of the global catch.

A report published by the
International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas in October
found stocks of Atlantic and Mediterranean bluefin had fallen more than 85 per
cent since the advent of widespread industrial fishing. According to the most
grave forecast, by WWF International, the population of spawning females could
be wiped out by 2012 unless there is a halt to overfishing.

Alarm about the prospect of an
imminent collapse prompted the US to declare last week that it would join
several countries intending to vote in favour of a ban, which will require
support from two-thirds of the 175 member countries to go into effect. The
European Union has also expressed support – but will request the ban be
deferred by a year – and has admitted the ban is essentially designed to target

In Tokyo, government officials
responded by denouncing the proposal and vowing to defy international pressure
over the issue. Japan’s Fisheries Agency negotiator Hisashi Endo said that if
”Atlantic bluefin tuna is given the most-endangered species status, then Japan
will have no choice but to take a reservation. We don’t believe the fish is in
such a dire situation that it needs that level of protection.”

The position means Japan is
prepared to in effect ignore a ban by leaving its markets open to imports from
other countries that also opt out. Under the terms of the convention it would
not face any penalty for doing so. But it could sour relations with countries
already critical of its refusal to curtail its ”research whaling” programme in
the Antarctic Ocean or to stop the annual dolphin slaughter at Taiji.

Some of the most vocal critics of
the Fisheries Agency come from within the country. Around the coastline, a tiny
band of leftover ippon-zuri fishermen blames the government for allowing
trawlers to plunder regional waters and destroy local economies. ”The
government lets the trawlers come through and take everything – the adults and
the juvenile fish together,” said Teruaki Yabuta, the head of Nikko Fisheries.

”Tuna could become scarce enough
that it’s no longer affordable to ordinary people.”

As bluefin catches have declined,
prices have begun to creep up. A 232-kilogram fish fetched 16.28 million yen at
the first auction of the year at the Tsukiji market in Tokyo. It was the
highest sum paid in nine years. But wholesalers expect bidding for high-grade
specimens will rise much higher in the event of a temporary ban, regardless of
how Japan responds. A plate of tuna sushi, sold in most Tokyo restaurants for
about 150 yen, could soon cost several times that amount.

Extensive research by Japanese
scientists trying to cultivate bluefin tuna in farm conditions has failed to
yield commercially viable results. Until it does, diners should learn to treat
the fish as a special dish to be enjoyed on rare occasions, said Masayuki Komatsu,
formerly the top negotiator for the Fisheries Agency. Consumption of bluefin
tuna in sushi and sashimi only became a regular habit in the 1980s.

In a sushi-train restaurant in
Tokyo this week, Osamu Morita, 38, a banker, seemed bemused by the fuss. ”When
the tuna is all gone we can find something else to eat. There are plenty of delicious
creatures in the sea.”