In early August last year, local fishermen in Tsushima City, Nagasaki Prefecture, contacted the Tsushima Promotion Bureau, a local agency of the prefectural government, and reported, “Unauthorized fishing vessels are catching bluefin tuna [Thunnus orientalis].” The Promotion Bureau sidestepped the problem, however, by issuing a perfunctory warning to the local fishermen’s cooperative association. The person in charge likely thought it best not to get too deeply involved in something that could get complicated.
The Fisheries Agency received information about the case from an outside party, however, and asked Nagasaki Prefecture to report all the facts. The prefecture launched an investigation at the end of November. The prefecture checked shipment records and conducted a fact-finding survey based on interviews with the fishermen’s cooperative associations and fishery operators, and it discovered 31 unauthorized operators and a catch of 15 tons. Adding in cases where catches were underreported brought the total of unreported catches at 11 cooperative associations to over 30 tons. This is the second time that Nagasaki Prefecture has “cheated” in managing bluefin tuna stock.
In January 2015, Japan introduced fishing regulations for coastal waters in light of the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC) decision to halve the catches of bluefin tuna under 30 kg from the 2002 to 2004 average and to not allow the catch of bigger bluefin tuna weighing 30 kg or over to exceed the 2002 to 2004 average.
Honest folks lose out in Tsushima
In order to set catch limits for each region, the Fisheries Agency asked each prefecture in autumn 2014 to submit a report on its past catches of bluefin tuna under 30 kg. Nagasaki Prefecture reported figures for total catch, including fish 30 kg or over, saying, “We don’t have records that divide catch into categories of ‘under 30 kg’ and ‘30 kg or over.’” The prefecture was given a preliminary notification it would be allotted a large quota, it is said.
Other prefectures suspicious of the numbers expressed their concerns, and it was revealed that Nagasaki had submitted a sloppy report. Deeply embarrassed, the Fisheries Agency redid the allotments right before the regulations were to go into effect.
Of Japan’s 4,007 ton (annual) cap on bluefin tuna under 30 kg, 1,901 tons is set as the portion for coastal fixed net, trawl, and pole-and-line fishing, excluding purse seine fishing and coastal rod and line fishing. Nagasaki has the largest catch limit of any prefecture in Japan at 632 tons and is a major production site for the tuna industry, including both farmed and purse seine; however, the prefecture has little sense of proactively managing spawning stock.
The Fisheries Agency is also taking a lenient approach. The Agency sought the cooperation of the nation’s fishermen since the agreement was a WCPFC international agreement. When problems arose, though, the Agency hesitated to punish anyone, saying it is “a voluntary, non-binding regulation” (Resources Management Department).
The licensing system for bluefin tuna fishing is an official regulation ordered by the Wide Sea-area Fisheries Adjustment Commission based on the Fisheries Act. To thoroughly enforce the system, the Fisheries Agency issued a ministerial order. In case of noncompliance, the Agency can bring charges, including imprisonment and fines.
Coastal fishing of bluefin tuna is prohibited in principle and can only be performed if approval from the Wide Sea-area Fisheries Adjustment Commission has been received. Fishing without approval is clearly illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing – in other words, poaching. Surprisingly, however, the Fisheries Agency protected operators fishing in violation of the regulation.
Overfishing was discovered in Mie Prefecture at the same time as the issue in Tsushima erupted. Mie has a cap of 23 tons of catch, but over 110 tons of bluefin tuna were caught in the prefecture, including 52 tons of unreported catch. In response to the FACTA investigation, the Fisheries Agency Resources Management Department explained that the unreported catch was from six ships engaging in pole-and-line fishing for bonito and said, “We asked that they refrain but they ignored our request. They had licenses, though, so it was not IUU.”
The Fisheries Agency asked each prefecture to investigate whether there are other unreported fishing cases. The Agency seems to have underestimated the situation, thinking that if Japan kept its total national catch under the limit, accountability would not be questioned at the WCPFC. It seems that the Agency is paying little attention to the situation in individual prefectures. In the past, the Agency had also allowed Hokkaido and other areas to exceed their limits. Mie Governor Eikei Suzuki found the criticism of the poaching outrageous, saying, “It was not illegal. The fishermen had a license. They just exceeded the limit.”
Even the head of the fishermen’s cooperative association, who knew the fishermen engaging in unlicensed operations and was aware of the unapproved catch, was found innocent and acquitted after he submitted to the Fisheries Agency a pledge that he “would never again violate the regulation.” When FACTA questioned the Agency about it, the Agency sympathized with the cooperative association, saying, “We cannot make unreasonable demands of the association.”
The ones who suffered the most were the fishermen of Tsushima’s fishermen’s cooperative association, where the operators who were in violation are members. Although there is sufficient quota remaining in both the prefectural and national categories, all members of the cooperative association have been required to refrain from bluefin tuna fishing through the end of the next period (end of June 2018). These fishermen got the short end of the stick as those in charge at the Fisheries Agency and the prefecture thought only of themselves and were negligent in their core duties of educating the fishing industry about stock management and inspecting to ensure efforts are being made.
In the case of the Mediterranean Sea’s Atlantic bluefin tuna [Thunnus thynnus] and the southern hemisphere’s southern bluefin tuna [Thunnus maccoyii], efforts to rebuild spawning stock saw success in a short period of time. To prevent poaching from becoming rampant, a catch documentation scheme (CDS) was introduced. Moreover, the catch and sale of fish under 30 kg was prohibited. Catch quotas have even been increasing in recent years. Japan, however, has 24,000 fishing vessels just counting the licensed coastal ships. Introduction of a CDS will inevitably flounder as that number of ships cannot be carefully managed.
According to a Fisheries Agency investigation, there is a 15–18% deviation between coastal trawl fishermen’s reports and fish farm operators’ reports. There is increasing distrust at the WCPFC of Japan’s catch statistics. There has also been a burst of criticism of how Pacific bluefin tuna stocks are evaluated and related targets are set, an area where Japan used to call the shots. On Jan. 5, the New Year tuna auction at Tsukiji market fetched 74.2 million yen, and the UK’s Guardian criticized it, calling it insensitive.
Threat of U.S. proposal to lower impact rate to 75%
The latest scientific reports say that bluefin tuna spawning stocks are now 2.6% of unfished levels, and environmental groups are calling for a two-year moratorium on commercial fishing. There is growing opinion in the United States and other major fishing nations that restoring Pacific bluefin spawning stock to at least 20% of what it would be without fishing should be set as a long-term goal. Shingo Ota, Japan’s representative at the WCPFC, said at a meeting, “Fish under 30 kg make up 97% of Japan’s bluefin tuna catch. We cannot reach that target without changing the structure of our fishing industry.” Far from leading the negotiations, Japan is being treated as a stubborn force of resistance.
Japan proposed an emergency rule where an emergency prohibition on fishing would be implemented if there were risk that stocks would be destroyed. The European Union (EU) showered the proposal with sharp criticism, saying “There is scant scientific evidence [it would work].” According to impact analyses, the main cause of the decrease in spawning stock is purse seine fishing in the western part of the Pacific Ocean, in other words, in Japanese waters. The United States is insisting that the impact rate of the western Pacific, which has climbed to the 80% range, be lowered to 75%. This means increasing the reduction rate on catch. This too is a great threat for Japan.
As fish farming increases in light of the catch limits, Japan’s purse seine fishing industry is encouraging that fish under 30 kg be sold as fresh fish at high prices. If the cap on bluefin tuna catch is reduced to zero, the fish farming industry will also collapse. It looks like the time of reckoning has come [for Japan] after being negligent in implementing structural reforms in its fishing industry and just keeping up the appearance of having fishing regulations.