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     Sep 16, 2009
Sushi lovers tense in Tokyo
By Peter J Brown

A few European countries are taking steps to save the world's bluefin tuna population. This month, the European Commission (EC) announced its support for a formal listing of the species as endangered under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), which would in effect ban any international trade in bluefin tuna.

Japan is the world's biggest importer of bluefin tuna, which can weigh as much as 300 kilograms or more. Considered a highly prized delicacy by the Japanese, the fish are often sold to customers in wafer-thin slices at sushi bars and restaurants. Whereas a fishing boat owner or captain might sell the fish to a buyer at the dock for $30 to $40 per kilo, that price could increase

tenfold or more by the time it lands on someone's plate in Japan.

Prices tripled from 2007 to 2008. One bluefin tuna caught in Japanese waters sold at auction in Japan this year for over $100,000, well short of the all-time record which was set in 2001 at over $150,000.

According to the Asahi Shimbun, Japan consumed 43,000 tons of bluefin tuna last year, and "a total ban on trade of Atlantic and Mediterranean bluefin tunas would translate to a cut of about 20,000 tons".

It is easy to see why any deliberate and meaningful action taken that might result in a global trading ban on tuna's bluefin species puts Japan and its suppliers on edge. Chinese consumers are starting to show some degree of interest in the fish, but it is nowhere near the Japanese consumption rate.

With 175 signatory countries, the CITES treaty requires a two-thirds majority vote, and bans only affect international trade. Any bluefins caught in Japanese waters and then shipped domestically within Japan's borders would not be subject to provisions of a ban, if approved.

The EC will make its case to European Union (EU) member states on September 21. However, a final decision will be made in Doha in March at the next meeting of CITES signatories. EU states alone do not hold the majority of votes. Still, it is widely believed that there will be enough votes in favor of the ban at the Doha meeting if the EU elects to proceed.

Monaco, France, Germany, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom are leading the EU campaign for a ban. In July, French President Nicolas Sarkozy announced France's support as part of a firm government endorsement of sustainable fisheries. This represents a 180-degree turn by France. While Monaco is not an EU member state, it deserves credit for initiating the process in earnest. The US and Canadian positions are unclear.

Japan, Italy, Spain, a handful of North African nations and the island nation of Malta are seen as the biggest sources of resistance to this measure. Bluefin tuna exports account for a substantial percentage of Maltaís estimated $120 million in annual fresh tuna exports, for example. There is no question that since Sarkozy gave his speech, this situation is now being taken much more seriously by those who frequent Japan's high-end sushi bars.

Also feeling the heat are the thousands of people who catch bluefins. Sushi bar owners, chefs, along with fish transporters and distributors, are all likely to feel the sting if a ban on fishing bluefin tuna is imposed.

On average, the annual bluefin tuna harvest, which is primarily conducted in the Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean Sea, has been capped at around 30,000 tons per year. The total catch represents just a tiny fraction - 1% or less - of the annual worldwide harvest of all tuna species combined, according to statistics compiled by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization.

Last November, a team of researchers at the International Commission for Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) - which describes itself on its web site as "an inter-governmental fishery organization responsible for the conservation of tunas and tuna-like species in the Atlantic Ocean and its adjacent seas" - recommended that the annual bluefin catch be reduced by more than half from 32,000 tons in 2007 to 15,000 tons or less.

Some are hoping that this will be seen as an acceptable solution that will offset the need for a total ban, which they label as too extreme a measure. Others disagree. Critics contend that the actual annual bluefin catch is higher than 50,000 tons, that these caps are always ignored, and that bluefin catch numbers are deliberately and substantially underreported.

"Despite the fact that the quota has been ranging from some 30,000 tons to 22,000 tons in 2009, the ICCAT Scientific Committee on Research and Statistics estimated in 2008 that catches in 2007 may have been up to 61,000 tons. This means that this is one of the fisheries in the world with higher rates of illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing, a lot of which has been carried out by the European fleet," said Sebastian Losada, Madrid-based oceans policy advisor at Greenpeace International.

However, "ICCAT does not yet have a formal position on the matter of a potential proposal to include Atlantic bluefin tuna in Appendix 1 of CITES. The issue will be discussed at the 21st regular meeting of the commission in November 2009," replied the ICCAT secretariat in Madrid to an e-mail query from Asia Times Online.

Another item subject to approval later this year is an ICCAT proposal to limit 2010 total bluefin tuna catches to 19,950 tons, and to 18,500 tons in 2011.

Japan is estimated to consume roughly anywhere from 70% to 90% of the European bluefin catch.

Among other things, what this heated debate is doing is focusing attention on bluefin trade and catch statistics, where the numbers in terms of total catches of the species and their value in dollars do not seem to add up.

The widespread practice of ranching bluefin, which is quite common in southern Europe, Malta and Turkey, is an important factor. Ranching involves the netting of juvenile tuna which are then transferred into large pens at sea where they are fattened and ultimately harvested. Malta ranks as the world leader in bluefin ranching.

One would think that ranching would help to keep the population of the species stable, but as growing numbers of juvenile tuna are penned up in various ranches, critics contend that the population's reproduction rate declines and that stocks are not sufficiently replenished over time in the wild. Greenpeace sees this practice, coupled with rampant over-fishing throughout the fishery, as putting the species very much at risk.

In a recent report entitled, "The 2008 BlueFin Tuna dossier: An analysis of Japanís 2008 Fresh Ranched Bluefin Tuna Auction Markets Vs ICCATís 2008 Bluefin Tuna Caging Declarations," which was prepared by Madrid-based Advanced Tuna Ranching Technologies, SL, the authors echo the criticism of Greenpeace, and other organizations which contend that the current state of international bluefin tuna fishery management as a whole is not good, and that mismanagement often involves simply looking the other way.

"Once again, ICCAT and most of its contracting parties have proven that their fishing management policies for bluefin tuna are to be considered as an international disgrace and that they should no longer be allowed to continue dictating preposterous decisions that for the past 10 years have literally wiped out a species that has been fished for over 7,000 years, from the Mediterranean Sea," said the ATRT report. "The level of bluefin catching and caging underreporting by ICCAT CPs [contracting parties] for 2008 could well exceed 50% of the officially reported figures. Blatant cases of false 2007/2008 bluefin tuna catch declarations and unreported caging of live bluefin tuna, have taken place ..."

The report mentions one EU country which reportedly "caged 692,550 kilograms of live bluefin tuna at its two operative Tuna ranches during the 2008 bluefin tuna fishing season; and yet, according to the EU Trade Statistic Database Eurostat, [it] exported to Japan alone during the period July 1 to December 31 2008, 1,019,600 kilograms of fresh bluefin tuna".

During the bluefin fishing season, planes play a vital role. Pilots locate large schools or "pods" of the fish. Once spotted from the air, pilots provide directions to fishing boats that are often so-called "purse seiners" which feed out a large net that sits on the surface, and then is gradually drawn shut, leaving the slowly surrounded school of bluefin tuna with no avenue of escape.

If the bluefin tuna which have been caught are not designated for ranching, they are brought ashore. From there they are trucked to an airport and whisked away on cargo planes to a large auction house in Tokyo, where they are sold for an enormous sum. The whole process guarantees a fresh supply of bluefin tuna each day.
Years ago, this writer worked on bluefin tuna fishing boats operating in the waters of Cape Cod Bay off Massachusetts, and loaded the fish onto trucks usually around 3am to 4am. The fish were taken to Boston's Logan Airport where JAL (Japanese Airlines) 747 cargo planes were loaded every morning before departing for Tokyo. Vast quantities of bluefin tuna moved through Boston in this manner, despite its relatively short fishing season.

Greenpeace and others assert that the over-exploitation of bluefin tuna has taken place, though the fishing has been tightly regulated for years, via shortened fishing seasons, annual catch quotas, partial bans and fishing exclusion zones or closures. There was a temporary ban on European purse seiners last year, for example.

"Bluefin tuna populations have fallen to critically low levels. Anyone who is opposed to the proposed trade ban is clearly putting short-term commercial interests above the survival of the species," said Saskia Richartz, EU oceans policy director at Greenpeace in a release issued just after the EC decision was announced. "Bluefin tuna has become endangered because of disgraceful fisheries management in the EU. The suspension of trade is a last resort and it merely buys the EU time to put its fisheries management in order."

Among other things, a curious split has emerged at the EU as the EU's environment commissioner, Stavros Dimas, is supportive of the ban, and acknowledges the need for urgent action. Meanwhile, EU fisheries commissioner Joe Borg is described as stuck between a rock and a hard place because of his Maltese constituency. Borg is not in favor of the ban, while trying to make all of the ICCAT's 48 contracting parties understand the gravity of the situation and trying to convey a sense that nothing short of full compliance with existing bluefin tuna regulations will prove viable. But it may be too late.

As the bluefin ban moves steadily ahead to its formal passage next March, another potential tuna crisis looms for Asia, according to Greenpeace. This has to do with the many tuna species which are harvested in huge numbers, and not just bluefins.

Noting that the highest annual tuna catch ever recorded in the Pacific - an estimated 2,426,195 metric tons - took place in 2008, Greenpeace is calling attention to a disturbing pattern where once again signatory states to various international agreements are largely ignoring those same pacts and allowing rampant over-fishing of tuna species to occur. The nations responsible include the Philippines, Japan, Indonesia, South Korea, Taiwan and the US in particular, along with China and Spain to a lesser extent.

In an attempt to greatly reduce the level of tuna fishing in specified international waters, and perhaps reduce the total catch by as much as a half in the process, several Pacific Island nations together with Greenpeace and others are requesting the closure of all four zones which are collectively known as the "Pacific Commons" to all fishing, and declare them as marine reserves.

In mid-2008, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands and other island nations declared two areas of the Pacific Commons adjacent to their territories to be off-limits to tuna boats.

These nations were frustrated by the lack of oversight and the otherwise poor fishery management practices of the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission to which they belong, along with other Pacific island nations and Australia, Korea, Chinese Taipei, China, Canada , France, the Philippines, Japan, New Zealand, the US, Indonesia, Senegal and the European Community.

In this instance, the collective action being taken is intended to preserve and strengthen not only the stocks of bigeye and yellowfin tuna, but also other fish and endangered species.

Further tuna fishing restrictions may be imposed as part of a new Pacific Commons-centric regime in December.

So, tuna is a hot topic in Japan these days. Swine flu fears are already resulting in fewer sushi bar patrons. Tensions are rising at the fish auctions in Tokyo, where tons of valuable tuna may disappear in the coming months. Simply put, an EU-proposed ban on bluefin fishing is bound to make lot of people nervous in Japan. Billions of dollars are at stake.

Peter J Brown is a freelance writer from the US state of Maine. He wishes to thank the staff of Greenpeace and the ICCAT secretariat in Madrid for their assistance.

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