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Japan-Update

Flexible caps agreed on for Japan's beloved bluefin tuna

Outcome seen as mixed bag for world's No. 1 catcher, consumer

Pacific bluefin tuna is a favorite in Japan, and heavily used in sushi.

BUSAN -- An international fisheries council agreed Friday to adjust limits on catches of Pacific bluefin tuna, consumed heavily in Japan, based on progress in restoring stocks of the fish.

A northern subcommittee of the Western & Central Pacific Fisheries Commission reached the decision on the last day of meetings. The flexible caps could take effect as soon as 2019, pending approval at a December meeting of the commission's main committee.

Japan asked for catch limits to be raised when surveys deem the likelihood of restoring parent fish numbers to 41,000 tons by 2024 at above 65%. The country said the limits should be shrunk should that probability dip to 60% or lower. The council opted for higher than 75% as the threshold for expanding the cap. Parties also agreed on a long-term goal of restoring stocks to about 130,000 tons by 2034.

Tough fishing

The proposal was initially expected to face rough seas, as nations vigorously calling for restoring Pacific bluefin stocks were seen opposing the plan.

Japan has cut catch volumes of small fish weighing less than 30kg to half the average load seen from 2002 to 2004, and is advancing measures to not increase catches of parent fish.

Pacific bluefin tuna are also increasingly being caught unintentionally along with others, such as Japanese amberjack -- or yellowtail -- and Pacific chub mackerel. "Protecting the Pacific bluefin tuna is preventing us from catching other fish," Shingo Ota of the Fisheries Agency of Japan said at the meeting. Even an official from the U.S., which had been in opposition, expressed an understanding for the plight of Japanese fishers.

Stocks of Pacific bluefin have fallen to about a tenth of peak levels and remain low. Even if the probability of hitting the stock restoration target reaches the 75% goal, expanding fishing caps will take some doing: The international council must approve raising the limits and decide by how much based on stock surveys.

Mixed reception

Some experts praised the outcome, saying Japan had been able to "argue proactively while recognizing present difficulties, maintaining a basis in scientific data," in the words of Takeshi Hamada, an economics professor at Japan's Hokkai Gakuen University.

Others pointed out that the hurdles to getting caps lifted were now higher. "Japan is saying it wants to expand the fishing industry at a time when it must raise" fish stocks, said Masayuki Komatsu, a visiting research professor specializing in fisheries at Tokyo Foundation, a think tank. "It will be extremely difficult to exceed 75%," he said, referring to the threshold for expanding the cap on tuna catches.

Pacific bluefin, widely used in sushi, are prized among tuna varieties. Many believe Friday's breakthrough will affect prices minimally in the short term, but "if catch amounts rise in the future, [the tuna] will become able to be sold at stable prices even at storefronts," said Masayuki Yamada, president of fish wholesaler Uoriki.

Prices of bigeye tuna, a mainstay for retailers, are also spiking due to low catches, creating a notable rise in fish prices overall. As the world's top consumer and catcher of over half the world's Pacific bluefin, Japan needs to take the initiative in helping restore stocks of the fish.

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