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Australia Slammed By Japan For Shelving Bluefin Count Plan

The Australian government has been rebuked by Japan and New Zealand for ditching Australia's commitment to closely monitor its catch of the endangered southern bluefin tuna.

Australia had undertaken to bring in a stereo video monitoring system to more accurately measure its live catch following Japanese claims that Australian fishers were falsely counting their take of the highly prized fish.

The parliamentary secretary for agriculture, Richard Colbeck, has shelved the proposal, claiming its $600,000 cost was unwarranted in an industry worth $150 million a year in exports.

Australia takes 5151 tons of southern bluefin a year - the lion's share of a 12,449-ton global catch split between nine nations. The fish is listed as critically endangered by environment group the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

Almost all of the Australian quota is taken by purse seine vessels operating in the Great Australian Bight under the control of Port Lincoln's tuna tycoons.

Schools of the fish are towed in nets and transferred alive to holding pens to be grown on before harvest, according to the Australian Fisheries Management Authority. To measure compliance with the quota, 100 fish are killed and weighed during the tow under the authority's supervision.

The average weight is used to calculate the total weight of about 10,000 fish per tow, which are videoed as they pass through a gate to a holding pen and then counted.

Japan told the controlling Commission for the Conservation of Southern Bluefin Tuna last year it held ''grave concerns'' that the method used to count the fish was inaccurate.

In reply, Australia confirmed its commitment to fully implement a stereo video monitoring system by December 1 this year to accurately measure the size of each fish.

But last month Australia told the conservation commission that the Abbott government was concerned the system would impose an ''excessive regulatory and financial burden'' on the industry.

Senator Colbeck told Fairfax Media it would impose ''a significant additional cost that was not warranted''. He said it would be postponed until an automatic system could be developed.

Japan said it came to a meeting of the conservation commission in Adelaide last month with high hopes that Australia would meet its promise.

''To our great disappointment, our expectations were crushed,'' commissioner Shigeto Hase said.

New Zealand commissioner Arthur Hore said it was dismayed by a further delay to an Australian commitment originally made in 2006.

''This delay will have a significant impact on the interests of other commission members,'' Mr Hore said.

The tuna fishers' spokesman, Brian Jeffriess, said Japan was making a false claim in reprisal for Australia's role in uncovering a long-running overcatch of bluefin by Japanese fishers estimated to be worth up to $8 billion.

''They've just made this up as revenge for being caught overcatching,'' said Mr Jeffriess, chief executive of the Australian Southern Bluefin Tuna Industry Association. He said under the current system there was a 99 per cent confidence level that the Australian quota was not being exceeded.