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Sunday, Jan. 25, 2009

What future for fish as Japan's daily fare?

'Sustainability' is the key to saving wild stocks — if there's still time


Special to The Japan Times

When I first joined a commercial hook-and-line boat fishing for salmon off the west coast of Vancouver Island, Canada, in 1976, we began our season in April, moved north through the summer months, and returned home at the end of October.

When I finally retired from that life in 1987, regulations had restricted our fishing to just five weeks in August and September, which was obviously not enough to live on — and not even enough to qualify for unemployment benefit payments.

Today, there is a moratorium on salmon fishing throughout the western United States, and despite efforts by Canada's Department of Fisheries and Oceans to revive stocks, the number of salmon returning to spawn in British Columbia's rivers is at its lowest level since records began. Fishing for them is, quite simply, no longer a realistic career choice.

The Japanese eat more fish — nearly 70 kg per capita per year — than any other people, and nowadays the consumption of fish and other seafood is on the rise worldwide, due in part to Japanese influence. Sushi, for example, has become a popular delicacy in the Americas, Europe and Asia, with sushi restaurants and revolving sushi bars springing up in China, Russia, Britain and the United States. This may seem to be a healthy trend, but it is putting enormous pressure on the most prized and vulnerable fish stocks — the populations of Pacific bluefin tuna — which may soon follow Canada's Pacific salmon into commercial oblivion.

Bluefin tuna is the rock star of the sushi industry, especially favored for the gourmet cuts of chu-toro and otoro from the fatty belly meat of these huge fish. Japan, which consumes around two-thirds of the world's annual bluefin catch of about 150,000 tons (down from its 180,000-ton peak 30 years ago), is most responsible for depleting the stocks.

That's because while Japan not only catches the world's most valuable fish, the Pacific bluefin tuna (2009's first auction at Tokyo's enormous Tsukiji fish market saw a 128 kg specimen fetch $105,000, or $820 per kg), it also imports Atlantic bluefin from Europe and Southern bluefin from Oceania. Both of those species are officially classed as "overexploited" or "depleted," and if fishing for them continues at the same rate, they will be extinct in less than 10 years.

However, while bluefin tuna edge ever closer to the brink, other species are also in danger. To focus attention on the wider problem of overfishing, scholars, researchers and officials from around the world gathered at the Fifth World Fisheries Congress in Yokohama in October 2008 to discuss possible solutions.

The keynote address was given by Ichiro Nomura of the United Nations' Food & Agriculture Organization (FAO). Nomura, representing the FAO's Fisheries & Aquaculture Department, spoke on the challenges to fisheries management and the FAO's attempt to significantly contribute to creating and maintaining sustainable stocks of fish and shellfish worldwide.

Nomura noted that the latest official data available (for 2006) shows that 144 million tons were landed in capture fisheries, accounting for 53 percent of the seafood market, with aquaculture (fish-farming) products making up the remaining 47 percent. Experts agree that by 2008, however, aquaculture yields had risen to make up half the global total.

Experts also agree, Nomura noted — citing the FAO's latest assessment of wild fish stocks worldwide — that some 52 percent are already classed as fully exploited, while 17 percent are overexploited, 7 percent are depleted and 1 percent are recovering from near-extinction — leaving just 20 percent classed as moderately exploited and 3 percent underexploited.

Based on this data, Nomura stressed that productivity in terms of tons landed can no longer be the chief priority for fishermen and fishing companies, and that the focus must now shift to sustainable fishing effectively managed by governments and watchdog NGOs. He also suggested that value-added products — such as frozen fish fingers, smoky barbecue salmon fillets and chargrilled yellowfin tuna steaks in plastic pouches — could help to increase fishermen's revenue if they were involved as stakeholders in the production process. In this way, he said, we might still have fish on our tables in 2019.

In reality, though, what is actually being done to secure the FAO's goal of sustainable and profitable fisheries?

The most active and visible effort is being made by the London-based Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), which assesses the sustainability of fisheries worldwide and, once a fishery is certified, allows it to display the MSC eco-label on its packaging as an incentive to attract eco-aware consumers.

The MSC was founded in 1997 as the result of a partnership between the giant Anglo-Dutch company Unilever, the world's largest buyer of seafood products, and an ecology giant, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). The goal of this unusual pairing of normally conflicting interests was to conserve stocks of commercially valuable fish, maintain the integrity of the marine environment and provide consumers and retailers with an accurate and accessible means of identifying products that met the FAO's Code of Conduct for responsible fisheries.

By 1999, the MSC had gained independence from its founders and, as a nonprofit organization, opened its first office in Seattle. The following year it issued its first eco-label — to the Australian rock lobster fishery — so allowing restaurants serving its products to put the blue "fish-tick" MSC eco-label on their menus.

But what exactly does it take for a fishery to be awarded the MSC's fish-tick?

To begin with, of course, a fishing co-op or association must decide to enter itself for assessment. MSC observers will then evaluate its operations according to three criteria: the status of the target fish stock, based on population surveys over a specified period; the fishery's impact on the marine ecosystem, including other fish species, seabirds and marine mammals as well as the sea bottom, reefs and the shoreline; and the performance of its fishery management systems, which ensure viable stocks are maintained, and both nontarget species and geographical features are protected.

Each of these principles has met with some success and some setbacks.

The successes include the fact that, by 2003, seven fisheries around the world had achieved certification and more than 100 seafood products displayed the MSC eco-label. By September 2007, 22 fisheries in North and South America, Europe, Africa and Australia/New Zealand were certified, another 23 were undergoing assessment, and 857 MSC-labeled products were for sale in 34 countries.

The biggest MSC-certified fishery, and the most important to Japan — producing over a million tons annually — is the Alaska pollock fishery. Pollock, which is used to make surimi, the base for processed seafoods such as kamaboko (fish cakes), kanikama (artificial crab) and chikuwa (fish sausages) is the United States' number one seafood export to Japan.

Meanwhile, in September 2008, the Kyoto Prefecture fishery for snow crabs (zuwaigani) and flounder (hirame), managed by the Kyoto Danish Seine Fishery Federation based in Maizuru, became the first Japanese fishery to be certified as sustainable by the MSC, and its eco-labeled flounder have now appeared in stores, including the Aeon and Seiyu supermarket chains.

The next domestic fishery in line for the eco-label is the Yaizu, Shizuoka Prefecture, pole-and-line skipjack tuna (katsuo) fishery, now in the final stages of the lengthy (and not inexpensive) MSC assessment procedures. Skipjack accounts for 70 percent of the total tuna catch in the Pacific Ocean and, if certified, Yaizu's fish will become legally eligible for export to the European Union and the U.S., where the market is particularly sensitive to eco-friendly pressure from consumers and retailers. The Toyokunimaru Fisheries Co-operative Association, which manages the Yaizu fishery, currently does all its business in the domestic market, but — in anticipation of gaining the eco-label — it is now building a new plant in Yaizu from which to start exporting skipjack to the EU in 2009.

Before long, the Yaizu co-op also hopes to gain certification allowing it to export albacore tuna (bin-naga) as well as skipjack. At the moment, however, the San Diego, California-based American Albacore Fishing Association is the world's only tuna fishery certified as sustainable by the MSC, which it achieved in 2007.

The main reason that these fisheries are deemed sustainable is that rather than employing passive long-line or seine-net methods, they use the active hook-and-line method. In this type of fishing, when a school of skipjack is spotted, the crew, usually around 12 fishermen, lines up along one side of the boat and casts unbaited hooks on short lines from long, reel-less poles into the school. The stainless-steel hooks are shiny and act as lures. They are also big enough to keep almost all juveniles from being caught, and usually no other species will be mixed in with the skipjack. The caught fish, too, are of high quality because they are caught and frozen individually.

Albacore, in contrast, are caught by trolling, in which lines are pulled along the sea surface as the boat moves forward at around 7 to 10 knots. The lines are fitted with lures, known as jigs, which used to be made from chicken feathers dyed red or blue, but today are plastic squid with cut-glass eyes set in chrome-plated lead heads, trailing an unbarbed hook.

When a school of albacore is spotted, fishing boats often work together, trolling in wide circles to "herd" the fish and keep the school from breaking into smaller units. Again, the hooks are too large and the boats are moving too fast to catch juveniles or slower-moving species, since albacore are among the fastest swimming species in the sea.

Long-liners, on the other hand, use baited hooks and keep up to 100 km of lines with thousands of hooks in the water for extended periods of time. As a result, many nontarget fish — as well as seabirds and sea turtles — are caught and die.

However, many fishermen use purse seine nets, which are towed from the mother ship by a smaller high-speed boat to surround a school of tuna. The net is then "pursed" — think of the drawstring on a woman's purse — and hauled aboard by powerful winches on the mother ship. The nets are notorious for catching dolphins, which are too intelligent to bite a hook, and fish are often damaged by being crushed in the net as it is hauled aboard. The fish are then frozen in bulk, which makes for an inferior, less evenly frozen product. Most net-caught tuna are sold to canneries.

In contrast, the Kyoto crab and flounder fleet uses Danish seine nets with a wide mesh to allow juveniles to escape. They also have so-called exclusion devices (escape holes) that allow nontarget fish to escape because they are positioned based on studies showing that different species caught in the same purse net will each gather in the same, different part of the "sack."

In 2002, the Kyoto fishery was in decline due to overfishing, so the Maizuru-based federation told its members to use smaller nets with a larger mesh. It also strictly monitors the fishing seasons, so that during the summer spawning months crab-fishing is prohibited, while during the flounder season, nets with exclusion devices are used to keep their target catch in, but let out crabs and other species. The tougher management practices saw both the crab and flounder resources increase by 36 percent over a five-year period.

Just as long-liners and Danish seine-netters are as ecologically different as night and day, two contrasting examples of Pacific Ocean tuna fisheries management were given during their presentations at the World Fisheries Congress by two researchers from Japan's Fisheries Research Agency (FRA).

Yukio Takeuchi gave a report on the agency's successful survey system for Pacific bluefin tuna (hon-maguro) in Japanese waters, which was begun in 1993.

The Japanese government encouraged local governments and fishing cooperatives to participate, and stock assessments have proven to be quite accurate. Consequently, this species is not considered to be overfished.

The management of Southern bluefin (minami-maguro), however, has been less successful, according to a report by the FRA's Hiroyuki Kuroda. The Commission for the Conservation of Southern Bluefin Tuna (CCSBT) continues to have a problem getting stakeholders to agree on a total allowable catch due to uncertainties over stock assessment.

And, although the scientific community has developed good management procedures, they believe that catches in Oceania-based fisheries have been substantially under-reported and the CCSBT has yet to eliminate what it tactfully calls "human-induced uncertainty."

Underreporting is also a big problem in the Mediterranean fishery for Atlantic bluefin tuna, a massively overexploited species, due to the control and ownership of several fishing fleets by the Sicilian Mafia and crime organizations from Russia.

Another important factor in keeping sustainability programs going is consumer attitude and behavior in regard to eco-labeling. Norie Tamura of the Fisheries Agency of Japan's Institute for Sustainable Economies reported on a survey of Japanese consumers and their attitude toward conservation of fish stocks. The survey compared this with consumer attitudes, and behavior, regarding factors such as health, sanitary standards and prices.

The survey, which concentrated on quizzing shoppers on their awareness of the recently introduced MSC eco-label and their attitude to it, compared their responses before and after they were given information about eco-labeling.

At first, the results showed that freshness ranked above all other factors, followed by price, taste, location of catch or cultivation, whether wild or cultured, environmental impact and lastly — of virtually no concern — the fishing method.

After getting information on eco-labeling, consumers were more aware of the issue of stock depletion — but felt that fishing companies and fishers were more responsible for acting than consumers. Consumers also found it difficult to fully understand what "sustainability" meant.

Nevertheless, 67 percent of respondents said they would consider buying eco- labeled products in future. And although the ranking of factors influencing their purchases remained essentially unchanged, awareness of fishing methods did appear as a factor, although still in last place.

Ms. Tamura concluded that more information must be presented to the general public in order to increase "green shopping" in Japan. To that end, in December 2007 the Japan Fisheries Association introduced the MEL, or Marine Eco Label, which offers Japanese fishing cooperatives a less expensive assessment program than for MSC certification — though one not as yet internationally recognized.

So, there seems to be a lot of good news and far less bad in terms of global fisheries sustainability. But whether fish will still be a staple food in Japan and elsewhere in another decade or two will likely depend largely on what consumers demand of the fishers that feed them.

And that, in turn — if we are to avoid other species passing the tipping point of those once bountiful Pacific salmon off Canada's coast — will depend at least as much on increasing awareness at home as directly influencing what happens on those vessels that harvest nature's marine resources far out of sight on the high seas.



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