Japan’s Floundering Bluefin Tuna Industry


A rise in popularity has led to a steep decline in global Bluefin tuna populations. (Photo credit: FLPA/Alamy Stock Photo)

Once deemed worthy only as an ingredient for cat food, Bluefin tuna is now considered a highly regarded ingredient that catches top dollar at sushi restaurants around the world. Unfortunately, a rise in popularity also coincides with a steep decline in global Bluefin tuna populations.

According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), in the 20-year span between 1970 and 1990, Bluefin tuna fishing increased by more than 2000 percent. During that same time period, the average price paid to Atlantic fishermen for Bluefin exported to Japan (where the majority of Bluefin tuna is consumed) increased by 10,000 percent. Research conducted by the International Scientific Committee for Tuna and Tuna-like Species in the North Pacific Ocean (ISC)–under direction from the Pew Charitable Trusts–indicates that the Pacific Bluefin tuna population is currently at 4 percent of its historic levels, meaning that the population has declined by a whopping 96 percent. In 2014, the IUCN declared Pacific Bluefin tuna as a species vulnerable to extinction.

Traditionally, small-scale fishermen caught Bluefin tuna using the pole and line method. These days, such small-scale operations cannot compete with industrial fishing fleets that use technology such as sonar devices to track and capture spawning Bluefin tuna using huge purse seine nets. Additionally, many of the fish targeted are of juvenile age (less than 30 kilograms or 65 pounds), which are captured to supply the aquaculture (fish farming) industry. Removing juveniles from the wild population has a substantial impact on population regeneration.

In 2015, the first-ever catch limit on juvenile Bluefin tuna was implemented among fishing fleets in the western Pacific. While an agreement was reached to limit fishing to half the average amount caught between 2002 and 2004, some say that the limitations don’t go far enough. Environmental groups have called for a complete moratorium on juvenile Bluefin tuna capture to allow the populations to recover to a sustainable level.

The Atlantic Bluefin tuna industry faced similar struggles in the Mediterranean Sea. There, purse-seine fleets from Spain, France, Italy, Japan, and Libya nearly decimated the Atlantic Bluefin tuna population. However, stronger fishing regulations has led to a resurgence in tuna stocks and the Atlantic Bluefin tuna population appears to be on the road to recovery.

A study commissioned by the ISC indicates that stopping the harvest of Bluefin tuna throughout the Pacific Ocean region would lead to a quadrupled population within five years. While halting Bluefin tuna fishing in the Pacific Ocean may not be a practical solution, the ISC also recommends protecting the juvenile Bluefin tuna population by enacting a minimum size catch limit. According to the ISC, prohibiting the catch of Bluefin tuna that weigh less than 20 kilograms (44 pounds) would protect fish that are two years old and younger, which could lead to significant population gains in only a few years’ time.

More to Explore
In Japan, a David vs Goliath Battle to Preserve Bluefin Tuna
Scientists Confirm Pacific Bluefin Tuna Is on the Brink
Japan tuna nets a high bid at new year Tokyo auction
The Pew Charitable Trusts: Global Tuna Conservation
Can farmed tuna save the bluefin from extinction?
Sushinomics: How Bluefin Tuna Became a Million-Dollar Fish

Country: Japan

Location: Japan is an island chain located between the North Pacific Ocean and the Sea of Japan in eastern Asia.

Area: 377,915 sq km (land and water) (slightly smaller than California)

Climate: Japan varies from tropical in south to cool temperate in north.

Terrain: The terrain of Japan is mostly rugged and mountainous.

Natural Resources:  Negligible mineral resources, fish

Economics: $4.658 trillion (est. 2015)

Environmental Issues: Air pollution from power plant emissions resulting in acid rain; acidification of lakes and reservoirs; large consumer of fish and tropical timber; following the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster, Japan now seeks to make itself nuclear free by the 2030s; Japan is the world’s largest importer of coal and liquefied natural gas, as well as the second largest importer of oil

Source: CIA – The World Factbook (https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/ja.html)


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