TOKYO -- Adding to the tangle of disputes in East Asian seas is another controversy for Japan, Taiwan and mainland China: fishing.
The North Pacific Fisheries Commission held its annual meeting earlier this month to discuss an international framework to prevent overfishing. But its eight members were ultimately unable to agree on individual quotas for Pacific saury, a popular seasonal fish, amid strong opposition from China and other players.
Tokyo had proposed annual caps of 242,000 tons on Japan's catch, 191,000 tons for Taiwan and 47,000 tons for China.
State-run China Central Television reported that Japan blamed China for the shrinking stock of saury, and said Tokyo's proposal was "irrational" and unfairly tough on its neighbor. Chinese microblogging site Weibo erupted with disapproving posts. Users questioned why Japan should be allowed five times the catch when its population was just one-thirteenth of China's, while others said Japan's own problems with overfishing tuna gave it "no right to criticize other countries."
The annual catch of saury in the North Pacific averaged 461,000 tons between 2011 and 2015. Japan and Russia used to take the lion's share, but other Asian players have entered the fray. Taiwan overtook Japan in 2013 as the world's biggest catcher of saury, while third-ranking China has increased its haul 30-fold in the last four years.
While Japan remains in second place, its total catch halved in the two years through 2016 to a 40-year low of about 100,000 tons. Large Chinese and Taiwanese fishing vessels are going on "fishing sprees," while "changes in sea temperatures are keeping saury away from waters near Japan," said Masayuki Komatsu, a senior fellow at the Tokyo Foundation.
Given the shrinking domestic catch, saury -- typically eaten in autumn in Japan, where it is called sanma -- fetched an average of 562 yen ($5 at current rates) per kilogram last year in Tokyo's Tsukiji wholesale fish market, up 30% from 2014. Many Japanese seafood processors have turned to cheaper South Korean and Taiwanese imports.
Ironically, saury is not commonly eaten in mainland China. But the less Japan catches, "the more they will pay for it, and the more of the fish we are going to catch," said a seafood industry source in China's Fujian Province.
From mackerel to bonito to squid, foreign fishing boats are increasing their hauls by getting closer to Japan's exclusive economic zone. In order to continue fishing sustainably, "countries must create impartial rules based on scientific data," Komatsu said. He expects such an effort would take three years or more.
Japan's seafood industry is sounding the alarm as well. "It's become harder to predict trends in wild fish," said Hiroyasu Itoh, chairman of wholesaler Chuo Gyorui.
"We are already at the point when we need to discuss this the right way," precisely because many countries are involved, said Kinzo Matsumoto, manager of the seafood division at Aeon Retail, a general merchandise unit of the Aeon group.