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Cut overfishing or risk ban on bluefin

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In this Jan. 5, 2013 photo, a prospective buyer inspects the quality of tuna before the first auction of the year at the Tsukiji Market in Tokyo.

SHUJI KAJIYAMA / THE ASSOCIATED PRESS ARCHIVES Enlarge Image

In this Jan. 5, 2013 photo, a prospective buyer inspects the quality of tuna before the first auction of the year at the Tsukiji Market in Tokyo.

Stocks of bluefin tuna, a fish highly prized as sushi and sashimi, have been declining.

Being the world’s largest consumer of this tuna, Japan must be deeply involved in efforts to replenish their stocks.

An international conference of a subcommittee of the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission started Monday in Fukuoka. The conference, held to discuss fishing controls on bluefin tuna, is being attended by representatives from eight countries, including the United States and South Korea, as well as Taiwan.

The breeding stock of tuna in the Pacific, which was estimated at 130,000 tons around 1960, dropped to 23,000 tons as of 2010. The commission last month compiled a report that warned this figure could fall below 18,000 tons in the near future.

About 40,000 tons of bluefin tuna, also known in Japan as hon maguro, is supplied annually to the Japanese market from around the world, including the Pacific. Japan consumes 80 per cent of the world’s yearly catch of the species, so it is indeed heavily responsible for managing its stocks.

In 2010, the commission decided on fishing controls for young tuna aged up to three years old, and cut the catch to below the levels logged from 2002 to 2004. The focus of the ongoing conference is whether this restriction should be tightened further.

The primary reason for the declining stocks is said to be the overfishing of young tuna that have yet to breed. More than 90 per cent of bluefin tuna caught in the Pacific Ocean are young fish.

On the opening day of the conference, Japan proposed that the catch of young tuna be reduced by more than 15 per cent from the mean value for the 2002-04 period. The United States, however, called for a 25 per cent cut, leaving a wide gap in the two countries’ positions.

Other fishing countries such as South Korea oppose an across-the-board fishing limit. Negotiations are likely to face tough going until Thursday, the final day of the conference.

If tuna fishing restrictions go too far, the overall supply will drop and the market price will soar. This would make it quite difficult for ordinary people to afford bluefin tuna.

Japan must make a clear position, based on objective data, concerning a catch that is appropriate for keeping tuna stocks stable, and lead discussions at the conference.

At the 2010 meeting of the signatory states of the Washington Convention, an agreement that restricts cross-border trade in species threatened with extinction, a trade ban in bluefin tuna from the Atlantic Ocean was proposed. The proposal was turned down following objections from fishing countries.

Japan should remain vigilant in the future against possible calls from other nations seeking stricter measures, including a trade ban, for bluefin tuna from the Pacific Ocean.

To avoid such a situation, Japan must take the lead in drawing up effective steps to preserve tuna resources. We also hope the government boosts its cooperation with other nations to crack down on violators of current regulations.

It is also important to increase the supply of farmed tuna. However, the conventional method of culturing young tuna caught in the wild in a growing pen may only end up reducing their stocks.

Both the public and private sectors need to expedite their joint efforts in developing technology to expand the scale of "comprehensive culturing," in which tuna eggs are artificially hatched and raised until they become adult fish.

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