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Pacific bluefin tuna's future rests on South Korea conference

Nearly 200 chefs keep bluefin off menu until nations move to replenish stocks

A Pacific bluefin tuna swims in a tank in the Tokyo Sea Life Park.   © Reuters

NEW YORK -- Tuna fishing countries gather Monday in South Korea, looking to reach an agreement on the conservation and revitalization of a species so prized for its flavor that the population has shrunk to 2.6% of its maximum historical levels.

"The meeting in Busan will decide the future fate of Pacific bluefin tuna," James Gibbon, global tuna conservation officer for the Pew Charitable Trusts, told the Nikkei Asian Review.

Should countries reach an agreement, it "would be a huge win for the species itself, and the fishermen that rely on a sustainable population for their continued livelihoods," Gibbon said.

As Japan, the U.S. and other countries responsible for managing the $40 billion tuna industry gear up for the joint meeting of regional fishery groups, political support for preserving Pacific bluefin comes from sources ranging from a U.N. leader to a coalition of restaurant chefs.

A major catch

Despite widespread consensus that the Pacific bluefin faces dire straits, disagreement remains over how severe the restrictions on fishing activities need to be in order to restore stocks to healthy levels.

Japan, the world's largest consumer of Pacific bluefin, has submitted proposals for stock management. But Pew, which has urged a two-year international moratorium on commercial fishing of Pacific bluefin, expressed reservations with Tokyo's proposal.

Countries failed to reach an agreement at last year's meeting after Japan blocked a U.S. proposal that sought to increase stocks to 20% of unfished levels by 2034. Japan now appears on board with the 20% target, Gibbon said, but on the condition of a flexible deadline.

"This would set a dangerous precedent that management goals could be changed if a country changed its mind in the future," Gibbon warned.

Japan's proposal also allows for higher catch limits if the likelihood of meeting the rebuilding target reaches 65% -- which also means higher catch limits if a 1-in-3 chance of failure remains.

Compliance with the quotas is another issue. Japan and Mexico exceeded their respective Pacific bluefin fishing limits this year, raising alarm from conservation advocates. The two countries have to deduct the overage from next year's catch.

Keeping bluefin off the chopping block

So long as seafood lovers crave Pacific bluefin, countries setting laws and regulations have their work cut out for them. That's why some influential voices in the business are taking matters into their own hands.

Niki Nakayama, chef and owner of n/naka, a popular Los Angeles restaurant specializing in modern Japanese multicourse kaiseki cuisine, is among nearly 200 chefs who recently joined a public pledge to keep Pacific bluefin off their menus while stock management remains insufficient.

Nakayama says n/naka used to serve a sustainably farmed bluefin variety called "Ten-Qoo," developed by Kinki University and farmed in Japan's Kumamoto Prefecture, but that the restaurant recently took the extra step of removing Pacific bluefin from the menu completely.

"I truly believe that many chefs, particularly sushi chefs, do not understand the severity of the situation and how impactful their decisions are," Nakayama said. "Given that wild bluefin is down to its last 2%, it only makes sense that we had to take a stand and do our best to contribute in its preservation."

Instead, n/naka -- which has been featured on the Netflix documentary series "Chef's Table" -- is using this opportunity to introduce diners to other fish such as Kinki rock cod and black cod from California, or kinmedai (Alfonso) and baby barracuda from Japan.

"I believe if it were made more apparent how dire the situation is, more people would make the decision not to eat bluefin," Nakayama said.

Friends in high places

Pacific bluefin has lured other support as well, including from former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry as well as U.N. General Assembly President Peter Thomson.

"The sustainability of Pacific bluefin is in peril, thus we should no longer tolerate illegal, unreported and unregulated pillaging of this critical element of the ocean's ecosystem," Thomson recently told the Nikkei Asian Review.

Thomson, who hails from the Pacific island nation of Fiji, has been outspoken on marine conservation. Using his pulpit as president of the global organization's main policymaking body, Thomson helped host the first-ever U.N. Ocean Conference in June, a weeklong gathering in New York of some 6,000 diplomats, nongovernmental and private-sector representatives -- all with a stake in the seas.

"The call for action emanating from the Ocean Conference has been adopted by the U.N. General Assembly, so now is the time to act," Thomson said.

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