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Japan lands in troubled waters at tuna talks

BUSAN (South Korea)

A number of countries participating in a Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC) subcommittee meeting have emphasised the protection of bluefin tuna and agreed to prolong restrictions on catches of the fish. The panel also agreed to a new rule allowing for an increase in catch quotas depending on the extent of stock recovery. Restoring marine resources, however, will not be easy. Tokyo’s efforts will attract particular scrutiny as other countries view Japan’s fisheries management as problematic.

Negotiations at the subcommittee meeting in South Korea, which ended Friday, ran into trouble after Japan called for a flexible review of bluefin tuna fishing regulations. The WCPFC previously set an interim goal of increasing the volume of adult Pacific bluefin tuna stocks from 17,000 tonnes in 2014 to 41,000 tonnes by 2024. The approved regulations were designed to have a 60 per cent or greater chance of success.

If the current regulations, which call for halving catches of immature bluefin tuna weighing less than 30kg, boost the bluefin tuna population, the plan is expected to have a 62 per cent probability of success. Japan proposed that research on tuna be conducted every year instead of every other year. It also sought tightened regulations if the chance of attaining the interim goal falls below 60 per cent due to marine environmental changes or other factors, while calling for loosened regulations if the probability rises to more than 65 per cent.

The Japanese government submitted the plan in hopes of supporting the domestic fishing industry through expanded catch quotas should tuna stocks recover. However, many participating countries, including the United States, opposed the proposal, saying a 65 per cent threshold would not definitively prevent the extinction of bluefin tuna. The countries eventually agreed to consider expanded catch quotas if the likelihood of success tops 75 per cent.

“This is definitely progress,” Shingo Ota, a councillor at the Fisheries Agency, told reporters after the meeting. “If there is no possibility of an increase in catch quotas, there will be no incentive [for fishery operators to follow the regulations].” A senior agency official said the agency “expected that it would be difficult to avoid strong opposition” to Japan’s proposal.

According to sources familiar with the meeting, however, participant countries eventually agreed to part of Japan’s proposal as they believed reaching the 75 per cent threshold would be challenging. The countries also believed that adopting a flexible quota system could be used to pressure Japan to strengthen regulations if the success probability falls below 60 per cent.

The Japanese government needed to stress that the outcome of negotiations would favor domestic fishery operators amid growing industry frustration. Nevertheless, the long-term goal of increasing the volume of adult Pacific bluefin tuna to 130,000 tons by 2034 will be difficult. The medium-term goal is likewise challenging as it calls for more than doubling current levels.

Shingo Kimura, a professor at the University of Tokyo’s Atmosphere and Ocean Research Institute criticised the latest agreement. “Distrust has grown toward Japan, which sought immediate gains. It’s also hard to argue that the deal benefits fishery operators,” he said. The United States and other countries have called for setting long-term goals, but Japan has opposed such an approach as it believes regulations would be significantly strengthened. This time, Japan agreed to a 130,000-tonne target because it thinks the target can be met as long as current regulations are only in place until 2034.

However, a source close to the fisheries industry said, “If catch quota restrictions remain in place, the government will need to assist fishery operators.” Japan was criticised by other countries after the latest fishing season as it exceeded its annual 4,007-ton catch quota for immature bluefin tuna by nearly 10 per cent. Isao Sakaguchi, a professor at Gakushuin University, said: “Other countries believe that Japan has pledged to not exceed its quota for a second consecutive year. This will be a crucial year for Japan.”

WP-Bloomberg