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Japanese Tuna Dealers Fear Drop In Pacific Bluefin Supply Japan, September 9, 13


Fishmongers in Japan are growing increasingly concerned about their ability to secure stable supplies of Pacific bluefin tuna, as harvesting the popular sushi staple is scheduled to come under tighter regulations starting in February.

The Northern Committee of the Western & Central Pacific Fisheries Commission, whose signatories include Japan and the United States, agreed to reinforced regulations limiting Pacific quotas, the first such regulation to designate a numerical target, when it met in Fukuoka on Sept. 5.

The WCPFC estimates the breeding stock of Pacific bluefin tuna at about 22,000 tons as of 2010, less than one-third of the estimates from 15 years earlier. The commission will finalize its decision during a regularly scheduled meeting later this year.

Two-thirds of the bluefin tuna sales in Japan come from the Pacific Ocean. The remainder is imported from Spain and other nations on the Atlantic Ocean, where tuna stocks are believed to be recovering.

The upcoming regulations will target juvenile bluefin tuna up to 3 years of age, which account for some 70 percent of the total Pacific catch.

Each signatory nation will be obligated to scale back at least 15 percent of its annual catch based on the average annual catch during the three-year period covering 2002 to 2004. That sets an annual upper limit of about 6,800 tons for Japan.

Some industry insiders argue there is no need for concern over supplies at this time because Japan’s annual catch averaged around 6,100 tons during the three-year period starting in 2010 and ending in 2012.

Other industry insiders are sounding the alarm over separate regulations that are being discussed as part of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora.

While the WCPFC meeting in Fukuoka adopted Japan’s proposal for a 15-percent reduction, the United States was pushing for a 25-percent cut.

“Future discussions will likely call for stricter regulations,” a Fisheries Agency official said.

An official with a major trading house that deals in tuna said the forthcoming regulations will have no immediate impact on sales volume and prices. A representative of a midsize sushi restaurant chain also said the company anticipates no near-future impact on supply, because it has a diverse array of tuna suppliers.

One wholesaler in the Tsukiji district of Tokyo blamed the purse seine fishing technique, which uses large nets that indiscriminately catch both adults and juveniles, for the dwindling tuna numbers.

“That fishing method should be regulated if global stocks (of bluefin) are to be restored,” the wholesaler said.

Trading houses and fisheries are increasingly looking at tuna aquafarming as a means to ensure stable supplies. Japan produced 9,600 tons of farm-raised tuna last year, double the tonnage from five years earlier.

But the practice raises other concerns and may only complicate the problem for juvenile fish. Some critics argue that tuna farming will only exacerbate the depletion of tuna stocks further because the primary method of bluefin farming involves catching juveniles at sea first and then raising them on aquafarms.

Another problem is juvenile tuna are sold at only a fraction of the price of mature adults. Although juveniles are not as fatty, and therefore less pleasing to finicky palates, most shoppers are not aware they are buying juvenile tuna because it is not labeled as such by supermarkets.

In September, Toyo Reizo Co., a leading tuna dealer based in Tokyo, began selling farm-raised bluefin tuna hatched from eggs. Company officials said the practice will help conserve tuna reserves and provide a stable supply for both households and restaurants.