AUCKLAND -- Pacific Island nations and environmentalists have expressed concern after talks on measures to save the North Pacific bluefin tuna from a near-catastrophic collapse in stocks ended in deadlock.
An annual multinational fisheries conference held in Fiji was presented with scientific reports showing the species at dangerously low levels, but Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and China questioned the need to take new measures.
The Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission, (WCPFC), which was established in 2004, controls the fishing of all tuna species on the high seas in the western and central Pacific Ocean, outside national exclusive economic zones.
Japan, the major fisher and consumer of bluefin in the region, is resisting further conservation moves, but Pacific Island nations have backed a call by environmentalists for a two-year moratorium on fishing for bluefin.
The Pew Trusts' Global Tuna Conservation campaign head, Amanda Nickson, said that a lack of conservation measures means that bluefin recovery is decades away, creating "a situation that is bad for Japanese fishermen as well as consumers."
The commission's 13th annual meeting, held Dec. 5-9 in Fiji, received a report from its advisory Northern Committee, which met in Fukuoka, Japan, in September and recommended no further steps on the Pacific bluefin. The committee also proposed weakening existing conservation measures by giving Japan and South Korea leeway to increase their fishing of adult bluefin.
Officials speaking on behalf of the Pacific Islands Forum Fisheries Agency rejected the committee's report and sent it back for further work, resulting in no decision on bluefin. "The Northern Committee has failed," said John Annala, an official from New Zealand, one of 17 FFA member countries.
Nickson, who was present at the Fiji meeting, said there was anger that no conservation measures had been agreed. In an interview with the Nikkei Asian Review, she said that Japan had defended the existing position, adding, "It was very much about the hardship their fishermen will face if there are any more catch reductions. They say they have to take that into account."
Japan also questioned the need for further measures, Nickson said. "They say that the [northern bluefin] population has existed at a very low level for some time without disappearing, and while [fishing] is maintained," she said. "Their argument is that they do not need to go any further."
Japan's Fisheries Agency defended its position. "Basically, the WCPFC in Fiji adopted what we discussed at the Northern Committee earlier this year," an official said. "What the subcommittee agreed on tuna resource management [is] based on good scientific reasons."
The scientific reports at the conference said that the bluefin is at just 2.6% of its original spawning biomass, a measure of the health of fish species that represents the combined weight of all individual fish in a stock that are capable of reproducing.
Japan claims the spawning biomass had been below 20% for around 20 years without the fish becoming extinct.
"No one cares more about the future of tuna than Japan, so it is very disappointing to see the lack of leadership," Nickson said. "We absolutely believe this is not an acceptable situation. There should be substantial catch reductions very soon."
She and others see the issue as being more about domestic politics in Japan than regional concerns. She noted that Japan had said it was developing a longer-term goal of aiding fishermen who would suffer from cutbacks, but added that a two-year moratorium would give bluefin stocks a chance to recover and allow the fishermen to return.
"The thing with bluefin is that all you have to do is not take too many. The ocean and the ecosystem will look after the rest. They are capable of rebuilding," she said.
Conservationists and environmentalists also say that a moratorium is needed. Bluefin is a highly resilient fish, and Pew believes the biomass could quadruple within three years following a moratorium.
Nickson said there is supporting evidence in the recovery of the southern and Atlantic bluefin, which are caught under more conservation-based management programs. Their numbers are slowly increasing, she said. "Southern bluefin shows you can actually rebuild a fishery and maintain an industry."
Japan catches most of its bluefin with "purse seine" nets that circle schools of tuna, but data from the WCPFC show that many juvenile bluefin are caught alongside adult animals. In 2015, 62% of the 5,456 ton catch was under 30kg, which is considered small for a species that grows to large sizes. The unofficial bluefin record weight record is a 415kg catch in New Zealand in 2013. Adult bluefin is favored for sashimi, while the juveniles mostly are sold as whole fish or as fillets for cooking.
The Northern Committee report said northern bluefin "has been overfished and subject to overfishing for almost all of the assessment time series, which begins in 1952."
The World Wildlife Fund for Nature's Pacific Tuna Program manager, Bubba Cook, said bluefin was "dangerously close to commercial, and potentially ecological, extinction," but the WCPFC was watering down or deferring measures. "We have gotten ourselves to such a dire state that the only thing we can do is completely shut down the fishery."
Cook said some countries had turned the "precautionary approach" to fish management around, from minimizing the impact of fishing on fish species to protecting the fishing industry at the expense of the species.
Pew and the World Wildlife Fund agreed that while the WCPFC was often "impotent, ineffective, or dysfunctional," as Cook described it, there was no useful alternative. The commission process was "sometimes necessarily slow, and sometimes frustratingly so," Nickson said.
Large parts of the Pacific are covered by national exclusive economic zones, with the FFA controlling access. Eight countries in the FFA have formed the Parties to the Nauru Agreement, which controls the world's largest sustainable tuna purse seine fishery.
Ludwig Kumoru, the head of the Parties to the Nauru Agreement, said the failure to adopt bluefin conservation measures demonstrates the intransigence of Asian fishers. "This refusal to take action demonstrates clearly who is blocking tuna conservation in the region," he said at the WCPFC conference. "Bluefin tuna is fished on the high seas by distant water fishing nations and they are the ones refusing to fix a problem they have caused."
He said the national exclusive economic zones were well-managed, but that "high seas fishing remains largely out of control, and urgently needs increased conservation management measures."
The WCPFC also failed to begin a process to create a harvest strategy for albacore, a smaller tuna species that is being overfished in the South Pacific, mainly by an expanding fleet of Chinese longline vessels.
China blocked discussion on management, and suggested that measures should be discussed with individual nations first, according to other delegates. "The islands will continue to suffer due to the loss of the albacore fishery and China will gloat as it sends ever more vessels into the region," Cook said.
Nickson conceded that protecting albacore was going to be a long process, adding that the WCPFC is overhauling its management and operations. "Everyone is hopeful it will work and improve," she said.
Additional reporting by Nikkei staff writer Kentaro Iwamoto in Tokyo.