Prized Bluefin Tuna Adrift in a Sea of Conflicting Interests, By Suvendrini Kakuchi IPS

TOKYO, May 13, 2010 (IPS) – Mounting international criticism against Japan’s Atlantic bluefin tuna imports linked closely to the extinction of the species has turned the spotlight, once again, on the lack of a viable means of protecting most of the world’s fast- depleting natural resources.

“The solution is quite simple if governments really want to protect bluefin tuna,” says Wakao Hanaoka, tuna expert at Greenpeace Japan, a leading environmental non-governmental organisation. “Trading in the species must be based on its natural lifecycle and not on short-term profits alone,” he adds.

Bluefin tuna is the latest addition to Japan’s controversial list of imports of endangered marine life. At the top of the list is whale meat, which the East Asian economic superpower is famously known to hunt under the guise of research, or ‘scientific whaling’ – a term it coined – since commercial whaling was banned in 1986.

Japan’s scientific whaling continues despite a threat to the whaling population as well as dolphin catches that are also bitterly criticised by environmentalists and most Western countries calling for stringent regulatory measures.

Indeed, Japan’s resistance to a proposed ban on the export of Atlantic bluefin tuna – found throughout the North Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea – by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) is seen as pitting scientific evidence, which confirms drastic dwindling of stocks, against commercial and political interests.

CITES is an international agreement among governments that seeks to ensure that international trade in wild animal and plant species does not threaten their survival. Its latest meeting, held in March in Doha, ended without the participating countries, including Japan, adopting any new measures to protect marine species.

Japan, supported by votes from developing countries that were, according to media reports during the CITES meeting, due to heavy lobbying by the Japanese delegation, successfully defeated the proposal to ban international trade in bluefin tuna.

Critics say the support for Japan at CITES has shown again how institutions that were established to support a sustainable harvest of natural resources are now buckling under political pressure.

Based on scientific data Atlantic bluefin biomass is now down to almost 50,000 tons – way below the 250,000 tons recorded in 1975, threatening its existence. The International Committee of the Conservation of Atlantic Tuna (ICCAT), an inter-governmental fisheries organisation, has been accused of allowing overfishing.

Japan’s lucrative market attracts 30,000 tons of the northern and southern bluefin tuna catch from total catches of 36,000 tons per year – equivalent to one percent of the total tuna trade in the world.

Professor Masayuki Komatsu, ocean and marine researcher at the Tokyo- based National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies and former head of the government whaling delegation to the International Whaling Commission, says he is “disappointed at the stubborn stance of Japan on the tuna issue.”

“Japan has to respect proposals to stop overfishing of tuna in the Atlantic and Mediterranean seas. Japan must forgo its short-term goals and stick to the principle of sustainable use of natural resources,” he explains.

Bluefin tuna or ‘o-toro’ in Japanese, sushi and sashimi are raw fish dishes that are considered high-end and are available at restaurants for as much as 10 U.S. dollars apiece.

The Japanese Fisheries Ministry acknowledges the need to protect the species but vehemently argues the only way to do this is for Japan to enforce strictly its management of tuna imports.

“All bluefin tuna imports must carry a license that indicates its source and adherence to ICCAT quotas. This assures sustainable management,” says Kenji Fukui, a fisheries ministry official in charge of the tuna trade.

Professor Komatsu explains such a position has eroded a bid by the Japanese government to build an image of Japan as a leader in global environment protection.

He adds that unlike whaling, tuna is not part of the traditional Japanese diet and therefore the government should not turn the issue into a national one.

“For decades, before the Japanese economic boom, the most popular fish was flounder or mackerel. Tuna, especially ‘toro’, was eaten on special occasions which were not regular,” he says.

Ironically, as prices go sky high, the old pattern might be emerging once again.

Issei Kurimoto, chef at Sushi Bar located in the fashionable Ginza shopping district in this capital, agrees. “The prime bluefin sushi is extremely expensive, which is turning away regular customers,” he says.

Little wonder preference has shifted to other kinds of fish, he says. In fact, Kurimoto adds, he is not against the ban on bluefin catches if scientific data shows the depletion of stocks.

Sushi does not only mean bluefin tuna anyway, he says with a grin. “The Japanese public will just turn to another kind of fish if tuna is not available,” he adds.

Such an attitude, while welcome, will not save the critically endangered bluefin tuna.

For instance, China, a key player in the protection of the species, is also turning into a lucrative market as individual income levels rise and the Japanese sushi increasingly appeals to Chinese appetite.

Rather than adopt a total ban on tuna imports, the Japanese fishing industry is also banking on tuna farming as a resource. But that is turning into an uphill task given its huge expense.

The high cost of the feed—15 kilograms of food to grow tuna to the size of one kilogram – has set back the project being undertaken by Kinki University in western Japan.

Such measure, says Komatsu, does not support efforts to protect the species from extinction. “The key to sustainable trading is to stop when there is a danger to the resource – and that is what is needed now,” he says.

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