Challenges in Japan’s Marine Fisheries.

A chef poses with the head of the $1.76 million tuna auctioned off in Tokyo in January
Kimimasa Mayama / EPA 2013)
For thousands of years, the sea has served Japan as a cultural and economic resource. The Japanese have made heavy use of the ocean surrounding their island nation, harvesting a host of marine organisms from sea cucumbers to whales.

However, in recent decades the ocean has become a resource at risk, with the onset of climate change, overfishing and other threats. While management plans have been adopted for several fish stocks, species such as the blue fin tuna face collapse. As of 2009, 42 of Japan’s 84 fish stocks were categorized as low by the country’s Ministry of Fishing, Forestry and Agriculture. (Statistical Handbook of Japan 2012).

While fisheries depletion is a global issue, it is especially relevant in Japan where seafood consumption is staggeringly high. 23% of the average Japanese person’s protein intake comes from the ocean, almost 3 times that of the average American. As a nation, Japan consumes 7.5 million tons of seafood annually (Balfour et. al 2011). Tokyo is home to the world’s largest fish market, where roughly 2300 tons of seafood is sold daily for an average profit of $15.5 million. The largest marine fisheries in Japan are tuna, bonito, sardines, Alaskan Pollock, crabs and squid (Statistical Handbook of Japan 2012).

The degree of depletion varies from species to species, but the fishing industry has seen a net decline in recruitment and profits in the past two decades. In 2011, the total catch was 3.8 million tons, considerably less than the 6 million tons caught in 1995. Financially, the industry has also suffered. Reported earnings were 1.5 trillion yen in 2011, down from 1.6 trillion in 2006 (Statistical Handbook of Japan 2012).

Overfishing is largely the cause of this decline. The increased use of powered trawlers and other gear innovations paired with a growing demand for seafood has resulted in the overexploitation of marine resources. In addition, development has led to destruction of seagrass beds, crucial habitat for coastal species (Makino 2011).

The fishing industry suffered further blows after an earthquake and tsunami hit Japan in March 2011, followed by the subsequent meltdown of the Fukushima nuclear plant. In the Iwate prefecture alone, the tsunami cost the fishing industry $1.3 billion in damage, wrecking fishing vessels and fish processing plants (Balfour et al 2013).

Fearing radiation from the nuclear plant, countries such as China and Korea banned seafood exported from Japan in the weeks following the tsunami. It took a month before fish sales finally recovered. In April 2012, researchers from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute reported that elevated levels of radiation were still present in fish caught off the coast of the Fukushima plant. In October, they announced that 40% of fish from the area still contained unsafe levels of radioactive cesium. In January 2013, a fish was caught that contained 2500 times the legal amount of radiation (Mosbergen 2013).

Even without damage from natural disasters, fish stocks across Japan are still at risk. The species that has garnered the most media attention for its threatened stock and high economic value is the Pacific Bluefin tuna.

Japan’s Bluefin fishery has declined dramatically in recent decades, with some scientists estimating that their current stock is only 4% of its original un-fished population (Jolly 2013). As the consumer of 80% of the world’s Bluefin tuna (Foster 2013), Japan is largely responsible for this decline. Most Bluefin are caught by large purse seining vessels that indiscriminately catch fish of all sizes and ages, including juveniles.

The high market value of Bluefin has contributed to its popularity and subsequent decline. In January 2013, a single fish was auctioned off for $1.76 million (Foster 2013). While tighter regulations have been implemented as called by the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission, they have not been strictly enforced in Japan. Ties between the government and fishing industry, a largely apathetic media and sushi-craving public have not helped the situation. Japanese fishermen see little need to stop fishing the Pacific Bluefin as fishing boats from Taiwan and South Korea take from the same stock (Foster 2013).

While the Bluefin tuna stock faces collapse, Japan has been able to successfully manage several of its smaller, more localized fisheries. At the local level, fisheries are governed by Fishery Cooperative Associations (FCAs), organizations of local fisherman in a given region that establish their own catch limits and no-take areas. While the federal government sets the Total Allowable Catch (TAC) for most species, the FCAs decide the quota distribution and access rules, usually based on the recommendations of fisheries scientists (Makino 2011).

The FCA style of management has proven successful in monitoring small-scale fisheries such as that of the snow crab and sea cucumber. After the snow crab stock in Kyoto prefecture declined in the 1970s from overfishing, the Kyoto Bottom Trawlers Union, a subset of the regional FCA, collaborated with researchers from the Kyoto Prefectural Agriculture, Forest and Fisheries Technology Center to set up permanent marine protected areas in mating and spawning grounds and seasonal no-take zones. Stricter minimum size limits and gear restrictions were also imposed.

These measures proved successful and the snow crab fishery was awarded a Marine Stewardship Council certificate in 2008. The success of the management plan was due to the cooperation of the snow crab fishermen who were heavily invested in reviving the stock. Snow crab is the most lucrative bottom trawler species and is considered a winter delicacy and tourist attraction in Kyoto (Makino 2011).

A similar management success story is the regulation of the sea cucumber fishery in Mutsu Bay. Dried sea cucumber is popular in both Japan and China, with 50% of the stock staying in Japan while the rest is exported to the Hong Kong seafood market. The fisheries is regulated by the Council for Promoting Sea Cucumber Resource Utilization which regulates size and catch limits as well as dredge vessel traffic. They have also worked with fisheries researchers to build artificial reefs made of scallop shells to restore cucumber habitat. The management model has been successful but the sea cucumber fishery still faces the threat of illegal poaching (Makino 2011).

While single species management is the most popular approach to fisheries management in Japan, ecosystem based management is practiced on the coastline of Japan’s Shiretoko peninsula, which was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in July 2005. It is a highly productive area that supports marine mammals and birds, as well as commercial fisheries such as squid, Pacific cod, Atka mackerel and walleye pollock. An integrated marine management plan was adopted that identified indicator species to monitor. These species include the Walleye pollock, Pacific cod and Stellar sea lion (Makino 2011).

A whale is caught by a Japanese boat
AFP 2012

The Walleye pollock is commercially important and is also the main prey of the Stellar sea lion. Fishermen must record the body length of each catch. In addition, there is a limit on how many fishing vessels are allowed in the area. Territorial disputes with Russia have made it more challenging to monitor the Walleye stock as both Russia and Japan harvest the fish but do not coordinate their catch limits. Another threat to the World Heritage site as a whole is climate change, which has resulted in the decline in the seasonal sea ice that makes the peninsula so productive. Scientists are currently developing adaptive management strategies and a climate change monitoring program for the ecologically and economically important area (Makino 2011).

While the management of some Japanese fisheries has garnered international praise, Japan has come under harsh international criticism for continuing to harvest whales. The International Whaling Commission banned commercial whaling in the Southern Ocean Whaling Sanctuary in 1994. Japan has found a way around this ban by claiming it harvests whales for research purposes and then sells the by-catch to consumers. However, the IWC science committee found that the 'research' conducted by Japan has achieved very little.

Meanwhile, an estimated 500 tons of whale meat have been stockpiled as only 5% of the Japanese population still consumes whale meat. Adding to the controversy is the fact that taxpayer money has been spent on whaling. A study conducted by the International Fund for Animal Welfare found that around $400 million in taxes has gone to Japan’s whaling industry in the past 25 years, money in recent years that could have gone to support rebuilding after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami (Ryall 2013).

Japan’s whaling industry continues to face opposition from environmental groups. The Sea Shepherd conservation group has resorted to physically confronting Japan’s whaling fleet at sea. Measures against the whaling ships have included attempts to damage propellers, targeting refueling ships, and using smaller ships to get between harpooning ships and their prey. The battle has become increasingly violent, with whaling ships retaliating with water cannons and concussion grenades.

While Sea Shepherd has physically prevented Japan from harpooning whales in a handful of these encounters, nothing has changed on the legal stage. The U.S. Court of Appeals recently ruled that the actions of Sea Shepherd constituted piracy and Japanese whaling is still permitted under international law.

Australia is currently working to change that law and recently submitted a case to the International Court of Justice to ban Japanese whaling (Bryan 2013). It seems unlikely that Japan will stop whaling anytime soon. The country’s fisheries minister vowed in February that Japan would never stop hunting whales because of its importance to Japanese culture (Willacy 2013). However, public sentiment towards whaling is not what it once was, with 54% of Japanese indifferent to whaling and only 11% supporting its continuation (Ryall 2013).

From overfishing to climate change and natural disasters, the 21st century has brought more than a few challenges to Japan’s declining marine fisheries. Controversies over whaling have not helped the fishing industry’s international image.

In order to stay afloat in the changing global and political climate, the Japanese will have to adopt more sustainable fishing practices before it is too late. Japan has been able to implement management strategies for localized fisheries. However, its cultural history of seafood consumption and the economic value of the fishing industry are major obstacles in saving species such as the Pacific Bluefin tuna. Major policy changes and drastic shifts in public opinion and behavior will be necessary as Japan moves forward.
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