The Frozen Tuna Catch at Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo The Japanese love fish: catching it, inspecting its quality, auctioning it, and above all, savoring the taste of its smooth, oceany richness. But in recent years, growing global demand for fisheries products has begun to outstrip supply, threatening to silence the sushi bars and auction houses. Some of the species that are closest to the hearts (and stomachs) of the Japanese are facing such intense harvest pressure that they are on the brink of collapse.

What’s the catch? Fish Culture In An Era Of Resource Decline

Japan was the first country to take fishing and fish consumption global. After WWII, as part of economic reconstruction and efforts to bolster domestic food security, the Japanese government encouraged fishing operations to grow and explore worldwide fishing opportunities. The result was the development of the world’s first distant water fishing fleet. Since then, the Japanese and global markets for fish products have exploded. The only problem is that some of the fish – especially the most delicious and valuable – haven’t been able to keep up. The health of tuna stocks, especially from the Mediterranean, has become a subject of serious concern. There are efforts to manage the stocks and control fishing through cooperative regional management organizations, but highly efficient fishing and rampant illegal fishing activities continues. The Japanese government presented data to the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tuna (ICCAT) suggesting that up to 18,000 tons of bigeye tuna were caught illegally, laundered and eventually sold in Japan in 2003. This figure is significant, since it is equivalent to 21 percent of the 85,000 tons of declared bigeye caught in the Atlantic in 2003. With such a large volume of fish being caught illegally, resource managers face a real challenge in determining actual fishing efforts and establishing acceptable harvest levels for licensed fishers.

What lies ahead?

Sushi & Beer at a local Sushi-ya (Manny Santiago)

Sushi & Beer at a local Sushi-ya

Don’t count the global fishing industry out just yet. Concern over the health of fish populations has spurred industry and activists to seek creative ways to meet demand and keep the industry operational.

Entrepreneurs are looking to aquaculture to meet demand for ecologically vulnerable tuna (and to profit from raising valuable fish). To date, there has been only limited success in rearing tuna from hatcheries, and the technology of making a tuna hatchery commercially viable is still years away. And like other species raised by aquaculture, there is a great deal of controversy about the ecological impacts of fish farming: the low efficiency of fish feed made from fish meal, the use of antibiotics in pens and the impact of waste materials and escapees on local ecosystems.

Meanwhile, others have begun a practice known as tuna ‘ranching’. Tuna is harvested and put into holding pens to be fattened so they fetch a higher price. Accused of increasing pressure on fishing efforts (because of the opportunity to earn an even higher rate of return on the fish once they’ve fattened up) and creating higher incentives for IUU fishing (because sending fish to a ranch for several months makes tracing individual fish very difficult), tuna ranching is under fire from international NGOs. In the short term, however, the practice is rapidly growing because of its financial returns.

Inching towards sustainability?

The Japanese market is notorious for focusing on quality in fish products, but now multiple efforts urge consumers, producers and managers to take sustainability more seriously.

In market-based efforts to encourage sustainability, activists, and even corporations, are trying to persuade consumers to choose their fish based not on quality or taste, but on the conditions under which they were caught. Some of Japan’s largest retailers have begun to sell fish certified by the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), a non-profit that has developed environmental standards for sustainable and well-managed fisheries. Fisheries that meet MSC’s standards can undergo a certification process that allows them to carry a label declaring that they are a ‘sustainable’ fishery. Recently, MSC has announced it will open a regional office in Tokyo. Several stores, including Precce Premium store, Kamewa Shoten Co., Aeon Co. and Seiyu Ltd. have begun carrying some of the 500+ products bearing the MSC logo. Everyday fish consumers in Japan can now assert their preference for a sustainable fishing sector.

Attention is gradually turning toward the plight of the oceans. Producers, consumers and governments are slowly beginning to take action to reorient Japan’s tuna fishing and consumption practices toward sustainable sources of supply. Evidence of these changes gives reason for cautious optimism, but a battle for the oceans lies ahead, a battle that must be won if there will be fish in the oceans for the next generation to enjoy.