|Japan's fishing industry in
By Suvendrini Kakuchi
TOKYO - Local fish stocks contaminated with
toxins and a perilous drop in shellfish catches are
signaling to millions of Japanese that their favorite
food is in danger.
After all, seafood - per
capita consumption in this country is some 70 kilograms,
among the highest in the world - is a staple in Japanese
Hence the shock when on June 3 the
Health, Welfare and Labor Ministry issued a statement
advising pregnant women to limit their consumption of
certain fish species because of fears of mercury
These include the bright-red sea
bream called kinmedai and swordfish, both of
which are expensive delicacies. The seven fish species
that are the subjects of the warning also include
cheaper tuna and shark, and sperm whale.
public is very concerned," said Kazuhiko Tsurumi, who is
coordinating the warning and response effort. He said
the ministry has been deluged by phone calls from the
public. "We are trying to tell people that there is no
reason to panic. The danger is only for pregnant women
and even they do not have to fear if they limit their
intake," he explained.
Already under pressure on
the issue of whaling - this month's annual meeting of
the International Whaling Commission blocked a bid by
Japan to reintroduce commercial whaling, banned since
1986 - the fishing industry is alarmed too.
the ministry, frantic inquiries came also from fishing
companies worried about their sales. Since the official
statement, the prices of the two expensive fish species
on the list have plummeted in Tokyo's fish markets.
"Prices are down on average of 40 percent," said
Norie Hara, who owns a small fish shop in Meguro, a
residential area in Tokyo. "The kinmedai was much
sought after, but not anymore." At an average of US$10
per kilogram, selling kinmedai meant good
business for vendors.
Statistics from the Tokyo
Metropolitan Government bear this out: it estimated that
kinmedai alone accounted for $3 million of the
total fish sales of $38 million in the capital's
metropolitan region for 2000. Not surprisingly, Tokyo is
the biggest consumer market for fish and seafood
products in the country.
But Japanese families
are now worrying more about parts per million (ppm)
instead of yen per kilo.
environmentalists is the fact that the warnings were
occasioned by the results of surveys conducted on local
catches. Given that species such as swordfish and tuna
are on the top of the food chain and feed on smaller
fish, which are known to have accumulations of poisonous
methyl mercury, industrial pollution is once again under
Yukio Murata of the World Wildlife
Fund Japan explained: "Heavy metal, mercury and dioxin
have been found in segments of sea beds in the seas
surrounding Japan, a result of wanton discarding of
chemicals by companies."
Such industrial runoff
is also seen as affecting Japan's most popular shellfish
- short-necked clams. The densest populations are found
in the Ariake Sea in southern Japan, but their annual
harvests have declined precipitously - from about
160,000 tonnes in the 1980s to 60,000 tonnes now.
Worse still, land reclamation in the Ariake Sea
is adversely affecting clam habitat. Sand dunes are
important sanctuaries for the rearing of short-necked
clams, said Hideo Sakaguchi, a marine expert at the Mie
University. Sakaguchi is now probing the drop in clam
catches to examine the impact of dike construction in
The reclamation is considered to have
affected the entire Ariake Sea. With the issue becoming
environmentally sensitive, the Agriculture, Forestry and
Fisheries Ministry is now conducting a study to examine
the damage that reclamation is causing to the marine
The official response cuts no ice
with Sakaguchi. "The government undertakes environmental
surveys only after problems are suspected or recorded,"
he said. "This is almost too late for the protection of
What is suspected by
environmentalists and researchers may well be confirmed
by the fishermen of the Ariake Sea. Last July, hundreds
of fishermen protested against dike construction after
poor seaweed harvests.
Rampant overfishing in
the waters off Japan, the danger of remaining fish
stocks being contaminated by industrial poisons, and the
destruction of coastal marine life are all contributing
to the environmentalists' fear that Japan's
self-sufficiency in food is declining further.
The country is already the world's biggest
importer of marine products. To ensure the supply of the
10 million tonnes of seafood consumed annually, Japan
imports about 5.2 million tonnes, a sum that accounts
for about a quarter of the global fish trade.
Indeed, as a percentage of total fish
production, Japan's share has plunged from 17 percent in
1973 - the highest for any country - to about 5 percent
and is further expected to drop to 4 percent by 2020,
according to a forecast from the International Food
Policy Research Institute and the WorldFish Center.
Rising prices and dwindling fish stocks, said
the forecast, will also mean that by that time, Japanese
will find themselves eating less fish, up to 10kg per
(Inter Press Service)