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Japan Fights Tuna Overcapacity And Stimulates Consumption

Japan’s recent change from fish-and-rice eaters to cheeseburgers has been affecting its tuna industry for a while now.

Some local groups such as the Organization for the Promotion of Responsible Tuna Fisheries (OPRT) is trying to promote the benefits of eating tuna meanwhile fights to reduce capacity around the world.

Understand the contradiction and how Japan is dealing with sustainability issues in this interview with Yuichiro Harada, Managing Director of OPRT.

Despite its “green” name, the Organization is very industry orientated.
Japan currently has 1.997 longliners and 246 purse seiners fishing for tuna.

Atuna.com: Japan has been portrayed as the “bad guy” of tuna depletion for its high consumption of the fish. How does the OPRT fit in this context?

Harada: Our organization was established in December of 2000 in order to ensure sustainable use of tuna resources through promoting responsible tuna fisheries. Our members are tuna stakeholders, including major tuna fishing operators all over the world and traders, distributors and consumers in Japan.

How do they play a part in the OPRT?

Well, for example, all the members that are producers, in order to address fishing capacity, have agreed to limit the number of large scale tuna longline vessels around the world. We commit ourselves to not increase their quantity. The members in distribution agreed in not buying tuna caught by IUU fishing vessels. 

What’s the OPRT representation among the Japanese tuna industry?

If you look at our website - http://www.oprt.or.jp – you will see who our members are. When I use the word “producers” I mean large scale longliners. Members come from countries such as Japan, Taiwan, China, Korea, Indonesia, Ecuador, Thailand, Seychelles and Fiji. And we have almost one thousand large-scale longliners registered, which means more than 90% of the entire world’s vessels of that category registered and committed to implement responsible tuna fishing operation.

What are the results seen from this partnership with tuna fleet operators?

The total catches from tuna longliners are not increasing, and rather declining. The numbers are very clear. What comes to tuna fisheries, the problem lies in fishing capacity. The rapid increase of catches by tuna purse seiners is very harmful, like in the Mediterranean for example, where bluefin catches are done by purse seiners, which encage the fish and take it to the farms.

How is OPRT relationship with Japanese government?

We are brother-organizations. Obviously the tuna licenses and its limitations are granted by the government. In addition, elimination of IUU origin tuna products from the Japanese market is done by the government. We monitor the state imports data reports to check for any discrepancies, and ask for the control.

The monitoring is done over reports, no onsite observers?

We perform DNA tests to identify if the government’s reports are correct or not. We had cases when reports said that some bigeye tuna was caught in the Atlantic, and DNA proved it to actually be caught in the Pacific. It’s a procedure that costs a lot, but we monitor all the trade information and we make random sample checks.

The bluefin current endangered situation has been portrayed by the media pointing Japan as one the responsible countries. How does OPRT react on that?

In case of the Mediterranean bluefin tuna, most of the catches are directed to farming. And farming is conducted by the costal nations of the area and not by Japanese boats at all. The responsibility, control and monitoring should be in the power of those nations, don’t you think?

Well, there are several Japanese vessels fishing in the Mediterranean as well.

You see, there’s a quota. Which is mostly used by the coastal nations in the area and there are a few Japanese longliners fishing bluefin tuna in the Atlantic, but only very few.

There are 390 Japanese longliners fishing under ICCAT convention area.   

Japan is still one of the largest consumers of fish in the world and your organization is fighting to reduce tuna fishing capacity. How do you see the future of tuna consumption in your country?

Unfortunately, Japanese consumers are changing their diet to other sources of protein. In the past, the Japanese people depended on fish and rice only. Today, the major problem the Japanese tuna industry is facing right now is the decrease of fish consumption. Talking about the percentage of protein intake, more than 50% comes from animals such as beef, pork and chicken instead of fish. That’s a headache for the Japanese fishing industry. Especially the younger generations are switching to red meat, so every year we report reductions in consumption of fish. Tuna follows the same trend, especially in the last two years. We expected tuna prices to increase, but they didn’t respond to that reduction, cause another headache for the industry.

On OPRT webpage there’s information about the importance of reducing tuna fishing capacity, but also information to stimulate its consumption. How do you deal with this contradiction?

We wish to have healthy resource and also a healthy industry. We work to ensure the sustainable yield of the tuna resource, and the reason we wish to provide information to consumers of the benefits of tuna is the rapid decrease in consumption. Without consumers there’s no way we can keep the fishing boats active. In addition, competition from other sources of protein, such as salmon, chicken and beef is very strong nowadays in Japan.
At the same time we stimulate consumption, we inform consumers about the importance of sustainability of tuna stocks and how tuna is a migratory species and that international management is essential.

What are the future actions of the OPRT?

We are currently focusing on overcapacity issues in tuna fisheries. The catches efficiency of purse-seiners has grown immensely and it’s still growing, while longliners have their tuna catches more or less stable. The number of purse-seiners has also increased in the Pacific Ocean, therefore we are very concerned about that. The Japanese government is working really hard to have sustainable fisheries. Japan is aware of the benefits of tuna and wish to maintain the stocks to the next generations.