Japan: Long life to bluefin tuna. The experts’ word.

With 68 countries voting against, CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species that regulates the international trade of wild animals and plants, rejected a ban on Atlantic bluefin tuna, that was slated for listing on Appendix One, i.e. a complete ban.

Japan consumes nearly 80% of the bluefin tuna caught globally, being it an important ingredient in the traditional cuisine. So it was in the eye of the storm when the CITES negotiations kicked off, as the country's commitment was put to the test and the final resolution was to affect the local fisheries business in several developing countries.

In addition, the dispute came only a few days after the arrest of Sea Shepherd's activist and the Oscar-winning documentary “The Cove” drew the attention of the international community on the whaling issue.

Tuna auction. By Flickr id: merec0

Tuna auction. By Flickr id: merec0

When the ban proposal was rejected, while Japan's tuna importing policies were severely criticized abroad, national media focused on the positive results, without taking into consideration more complex issues such as the preservation of endangered species.

A clear example of Japanese media's biased reporting is the FUJI TV program titled “クロマグロ禁輸否決!「日本大逆転勝ち」の攻防” (“Bluefin tuna ban rejected! The story of how Japan scored a big upset victory” (see clip ), where the commentator Ogura Tomoaki said that “If influential countries continue to exercise their power, we won't have anything left to eat. In a few decades, the population will increase to 9 billion people and we'll need to use any resources as much as we can”.

Nakanishi Junko, an Environmental Engineering Professor at AIST criticizes the way media reported on the CITES decision , saying it distracts attention from the real problem :

今回の取材の焦点は、資源量ではなく、畜養に移ったらしい。そう言えば、いくつかのところで、畜養の話しを耳にしたし、TVで映像も見た。なるほど。この変化は何を意味しているのだろうか? まず、これは世論誘導があったのか、それとも皆の関心が自然とそちらに移ったか、どちらだろう。考えてみても分かる筈もないのだが、一定の世論誘導があったとしても、それが、この報道の変化の主要な動機ではなく、日本人が、環境問題に向き合うことを避けたいという気持ち、それを反映していると思う。 環境保護を第一に考える人は、禁輸があってもいいぐらいのことは考えるだろう。しかし、一般には、マスコミは、マグロを食べることを否定できない、否定されたくない。とすれば、資源を見ながら調整しなければならない。 しかし、環境問題となると、予防原則とか、ゼロリスクとかで考えてきた、したがって、そういう調整、マネージメントの問題として考えることは不得手。そこで、一挙に、人工的に可能というところに行くのではなかろうか。 畜養の方が、資源量を減らしているという指摘をする人もいるので、所詮、環境問題から逃れることができないのだが、これを環境問題として考えたくないという思想の現れだと、私には見えた。

This time, media focused their attention on aquaculture instead of reporting on the quantity of stocks available. If I remember correctly, I think I've heard stories and seen images on TV about tuna farming. What does this shift of focus mean?
First, this could either be manipulation of public opinion, or just a natural shift of interest. It's very difficult to know what's the real reason but if the latter supposition is correct, I think it well represents the mentality of the Japanese people who tend to avoid involvement in environmental issues
If one's priority is environmental conservation, a trade ban on the bluefin should be welcome.
However, if Japanese media wants to present to common people the issue with arguments such as ‘tuna cannot be denied’, or ‘we don't want tuna to be denied’, they should also take into consideration the management of the available resources.
As for environmental problems, precautions and the zero risk-principle are the proper way to think about management. But since the media is poor at thinking in this framework, artificial solutions are where they end up.
There is who pointed out that tuna farming is actually decreasing the number of stocks, which inevitably brings media to face the issue anyway. Overall, their way of dealing with the whole problem looked to me like ploy to not think about environmental issues.
Old man and tuna. By Flickr id: Focx Photography

Old man and tuna. By Flickr id: Focx Photography

Matsuda Hiroyuki, a Professor of Environment and Information Sciences at Yokohama University takes the broad view that even an eventual ban by CITES does not mean the disappearance of tuna from Japan's dining table:

大西洋クロマグロが禁輸されても、トロが食えなくなるわけではない。マグロ消費量を抑えろと言うのは以前からの私の持論だ。何を騒いでいるのだろうか。今回の教訓は、国際漁業管理にとって、今までは日本が乱獲の主役だったが、今回は欧州漁業機関が乱獲を続けていたと言うこと、その欧州はワシントン条約とマグロ管理で正反対の主張をしていること(日本はそんなことはない)。結局、今後の水産資源管理は、ワシントン条約とその背後の環境団体の意向を無視できなくなったことがわかったと言うことだ。 前向きの話をすべきだ。それは、ワシントン条約では俎上に上らないかもしれない、他の先進国が直接獲らない、太平洋クロマグロの資源管理である。これを語る報道機関を、まだ知らない。最も大事な問題から目をそらすのは、残念である。

Even if there is a trade ban on the Atlantic bluefin tuna, it doesn't mean that we won't be able to eat toro anymore. I have always supported the necessity of decreasing tuna consumption. I'm not sure why people are up in arms with this.
The lesson that we get from this is that Japan has always played the lead role on overfishing. But this time the Europeans were the ones overfishing and Europe's position on CITES and their management of tuna go opposite ways (while Japan is consistent).
In conclusion, we understood that, as far as it concerns the management of fishing resources, from now on we cannot ignore neither the Washington Charter nor the environmentalist groups who refer to it.
Media should be more optimistic. We can still manage a number of stocks of Pacific bluefin tuna that probably won't come up in the Washington charter, or that other developed countries won't catch. So far I don't know of any media institution that emphasizes this and it's a pity that they take their eyes away from such an important issue.
Bluefin tuna. By Flickr id: bzibble

Bluefin tuna. By Flickr id: bzibble

Finally, Katsukawa Toshio, a Fisheries Professor at Mie University says the media is pandering to the public on emotional terms, and dismissing the real issues that is Japan's large responsibility to the inevitable extinction of the Atlantic bluefin — whether that is through overfishing, illegal fishing, supporting tuna ranching, not taking leadership, or harvesting immature bluefins.

「ワシントン条約を妨害したから、日本の食文化が守られた」という、日本メディアの報道は事実に反している。タイセイヨウクロマグロは、持続性を考えれば、ほぼ禁漁に近い措置が必要になる水準まで減っている。ICCATがまともに規制をすれば、ほぼ禁漁になるし、今のままとり続ければ数年で魚は消えるだろう […]

As opposed to the Japanese government who promoted the effectiveness of the ICCAT, the Western countries were skeptical about its management abilities. If you look at the ICCAT report, it is apparent which was right. In 2007, they set a 29500t TAC (Total Allowed Catch).
The reported yield was 34514t, but in reality, the fishing quota reached 61000t, as the ICCAT themselves admitted. The hotbed for “black” tuna comes from tuna farm. Tuna ranching collectively harvests the spawning stocks, dumps them into cages, and fatten them up for export to Japan; this practice is spreading across the Mediterranean (most farmed fish in Japan are ranched tuna but of course media ignore it).
The TAC is 30000t, but the tuna ranching capacity in the Mediterranean supposedly goes up to 60000t. In other words,there is no effort to respect the TAC quota. This illegal fishing activity is basically a mafia business. […]
The general message from Japanese media is “CITES ban was averted, we were able to protect Japan's food culture!” and it goes against reality. If you think about the sustainability of the Atlantic bluefin, there should basically be a ban on fishing, given current stock sizes. If ICCAT implemented the proper measures (according to the scientists), there would be a ban on fishing; if we continue to harvest the stock, they will disappear in a few years. […]
The Japanese media hid important information and fanned the emotions of the public, leading people to a preconceived conclusion.

Here is the trajectory of the Eastern Atlantic and Mediterranean bluefin population from a well-cited publication by the WWF (pdf). Even with the present recovery plan, we will see a continued decrease that will lead to alarming stock levels.

Compared to the Pacific bluefin harvest and the Southern bluefin harvest, Japan's catch levels of Atlantic bluefin (West Atlantic, East Atlantic, Mediterranean) are fairly low especially compared to the E.U. countries.


  • […] Japanese Fisheries Scientists on Japanese Media Coverage of the CITES Bluefin Tuna Decision March 26th, 2010 | Category: Data stuff, Fish, Media | **this is a crosspost of an unedited version of the Global Voices article […]

  • Engels

    Thanks for posting this – it’s nice to know there are some Japanese with an opinion counter to that shown by the mass media. On TV conservation seems to be a total non-issue, not even worth discussing.

  • Great, informative post. However…

    >Japan consumes nearly 80% of the bluefin tuna caught globally, being it an important ingredient in the traditional cuisine.

    Perhaps this is splitting hairs, but bluefin tuna did not become a large part of Japan’s traditional food culture until after the war and the development of the pelagic fishing industry and tuna longliners.

    This industry was developed, much like whaling, to enhance Japan’s food security after the war, and provide additional sources of food – the longline fleet was focused on fishing the Indian Ocean for tuna.

    So, bluefin tuna is not exactly a part of traditional Japanese cuisine.

  • There is a strange victim mentality in Japan–strange because Japan has never been victimized as a nation. But every time Japan is asked by other nations or the international community to modify its behavior, the local media portrays it as unfair attack and ignores the merits of the case, focusing only on “にっぽんの立場” (the Japanese position).

    In the case of bluefin tuna, the facts are completely distorted by the Japanese news media. This is an environmental problem caused by the huge increase in consumption in Japan since the ’70s, when Japan first became an affluent country and it became possible for ordinary people to eat sushi on a fairly regular basis. According to the Japanese media though, the fact that sushi is becoming more popular is foreign countries is driving up the price in Japan, and may one day deprive the Japanese of being able to eat sushi, especially their prized toro.

    • BTW, I’d like to make the point that the EU is the bigger culprit in overfishing the Atlantic bluefin (like the 2nd quote says). Japan has a voracious appetite that puts “tradition” over “environment,” but who is feeding them? I haven’t seen international criticism of the EU and the surrounding developing countries.

      I think the victim role is kinda understandable, though it’s a cop-out.

  • […] the world’s attention like this year. When a ban on the Atlantic Blue-fin Tuna was rejected, Japanese experts reacted against biased media also remarking the importance of sustainable fishing. After the tuna debate, a […]

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