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Sunday, Dec. 9, 2007

Eating away at a lifestyle


Special to The Japan Times

Tuna has been much in the news in 2007. The year began with Japan's quota for Atlantic or northern bluefin tuna being reduced by 23 percent from the 2006 level for the next four years and the nation's Pacific or southern bluefin tuna quota slashed by 50 percent for the next five years by the tuna conservation commissions of the two oceans respectively.

News photo
Men cuts up slabs of tuna at the annual Oma Tuna Festival in Aomori Prefecture. HILLEL WRIGHT PHOTO

This, coupled with the increased popularity of and growing demand everywhere from Vancouver to Moscow to Shanghai for sushi — and maguro in particular — has put pressure on Japan's domestically produced stocks, especially since the country consumes about two-thirds of the annual bluefin catch worldwide. To top it off, the Fish Info Network, part of the U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organization, has predicted that without enforcement of quotas, wild fisheries will collapse by 2050 worldwide.

Officially, bluefin tuna populations in the eastern Atlantic and Mediterranean are "overfished" — "massively" so according to environmental groups such as Greenpeace. The U.S. National Fisheries Service has criticized the European Union for failing to live up to agreements to reduce catch levels, protect spawning stocks and crack down on black marketeering.

In the Pacific, several national and international watchdog commissions monitor tuna quotas, including those most relevant to Japanese fishermen and fishmongers. Nevertheless, "most tuna species are fully exploited, overexploited or depleted," according to Jacek Majkowski of the Food and Agriculture Organization in Rome.

One exception is the pole and line skipjack tuna (katsuo) fishery, which is closer to undergoing an assessment of its ability to sustain its fish populations than any other of Japan's tuna fisheries, according to sources close to the process. The leading fisheries assessment organization is the London-based Marine Stewardship Council, which operates globally. The council conducts surveys of fishing operations according to a set of ecological standards, such as impact of fishing gear on the environment, the incidental deaths of other species of fish caught, and threats to protected species.

If the fishery meets the standards for sustainability, the council will grant it the right to display the bold blue MSC "ecolabel" on its packaging. Aeon, the major supermarket chain, is the first Japanese retailer to embrace the council's marketing policy and will display the MSC label at its stores on all seafood products that are sourced from sustainable fisheries. Aeon has already begun to promote "ecolabeling" on TV commercials, in newspaper ads and even in Big Comic manga magazine. Seiyu stores have recently followed suit.

Fish paste, Japan's No. 1 seafood import from the United States and the basic ingredient for a number of processed fish products, is commonly made from pollock caught in Alaska. The Gulf of Alaska pollock fishery was one of the first to achieve MSC certification. The first Japanese fishery to enter assessment is the Kyoto snow-crab and flounder fishery on the Japan Sea coast.

Recently, the California-based American Albacore Fishing Association (AAFA) became the first tuna fishery to gain MSC sustainability status, and can now ecolabel its catch. No other tuna fishery is currently undergoing assessment, as it is prohibitively expensive. Masuo Ide, editor of fishery industry newspaper Suisan Times, says it runs up to $85,000, too much for many of Japan's small fishing cooperatives. So the Japan Fisheries Association is developing its own Marine Ecolabel Japan, or MEL, which is envisioned as a less expensive alternative to the MSC.

There are, according to an Australian watchdog organization, 23 separate tuna populations in the world fished commercially. Nine are classified as "fully fished or exploited," four (including bluefin tuna) are "over-fished or depleted," and three each are "critically endangered, endangered, or vulnerable to extinction."

San Diego's AAFA is a small fishery, and albacore, which average 9 or 10 kg per fish and rarely reach 30 kg, hardly compare in value with hon maguro, which can reach weights of over 300 kg. But according to Meredith Lopuch, community fisheries program director for the World Wildlife Federation, U.S., "Certification of the first sustainable tuna fishery shows it can be done. If others change to improve their practices and follow suit, there's a future for tuna and tuna fisheries."



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