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East Asia fish stocks threatened, with regulators at impasse

Overfishing in territorial waters, high seas risks key food species

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Overfishing is driving Pacific bluefin tuna stocks toward collapse.   © Kyodo

TOKYO -- Competition over fish stocks in East Asia is driving populations closer to collapse as efforts stall among Tokyo, Seoul and Beijing to manage those resources cooperatively, threatening depletion even farther afield.

"There's no reasoning with South Korea," an official at Japan's Fisheries Agency sighed recently. Fishers from both nations lost their right to use the other's exclusive economic zone in July 2016, after the two sides failed to renew an agreement to that effect. A fresh pact traditionally is in place by the end of June each year when the previous agreement expires, but negotiations have dragged on this time.

The agency blames the standoff on South Korea's failure to crack down on illegal fishing vessels, which frequently are seized for operating in Japan's EEZ without a permit. Of the six foreign vessels the regulator seized in 2016, five were South Korean.

According to the Fisheries Agency, Seoul claims these illegal vessels are so numerous because Japan's quota for a type of cutlass fish sought by South Korean anglers is too small to support those workers' livelihoods, prioritizing economic concerns over rules set to protect fishing stocks.

China puts further pressure on regional fish populations. Overfishing has largely exhausted stocks within that country's EEZ, leading to greater activity on the high seas, where in principle any nation is allowed to fish. Beijing subsidizes the cost of fuel needed to reach those far-off waters, encouraging high-seas fishing en masse of mackerel and saury species, for example.


As far as these public stocks are concerned, the system essentially operates as first come, first served. The bonito population "is in particularly dire straits," said Ayumu Katano, deputy general manager of marketing for seafood processor Maruha Nichiro.

Many countries fish bonito in the South Pacific, and the number of fishing vessels in the region has surged over the past 10 years, according to a company dealing in fishery products. But while total catch rises to meet climbing demand for canned fish, each vessel brings in less and less. Still, competition is intensifying as fishermen try to sell more than their ships' operating costs.

This feeding frenzy along the fish's path northward through the Pacific in turn has curbed bonito catch in Japan, where the fish serves as a cooking staple and a much-loved sign of late spring. Domestic catch fell 20% in 2015 from five years earlier, the Fisheries Agency said.

Japan itself is not innocent of overfishing, particularly for bluefin tuna. The Western & Central Pacific Fisheries Commission, whose jurisdiction includes waters around Japan, in 2014 capped fishing of bluefin weighing less than 30kg at half the average level from 2002 to 2004 for conservation purposes. Fishing of adult tuna was barred from exceeding the average level from those years. Japan restricted fishing off its shores in line with these policies, requiring fishermen to obtain approval for tuna and limiting catch by region and fishing method.

But compliance remains spotty, with a number of violations uncovered since autumn. A Fisheries Agency study released in March found nine prefectures either failed to report or improperly reported nearly 120 tons of tuna catch over the course of a year. In three of those prefectures -- Nagasaki, Shizuoka and Wakayama -- nearly 14 tons of tuna were hauled in without proper permits.

Waters off the Nagasaki Prefecture island of Tsushima accounted for 90% of fishing that lacked permits, which many see as suggesting something more than simple mistakes. Agency officials worry these violations could discourage fishermen who take conservation rules seriously.

Guidance needed

This disregard for proper resource management has tarnished Japan's reputation in the U.S. and Europe, where more weight has been put behind such efforts. "Japan is held up as an example of what not to do" there, Katano said.

Those countries have their own histories of overfishing. Norway saw herring stocks collapse starting in the 1960s. In the 1980s, the government reined in the country's fishing fleet and offered subsidies to fishermen, easing intense competition for herring. Though the industry protested, this top-down approach succeeded in restoring the herring population and keeping stock relatively stable.

Consumers and retailers worldwide also are driving a shift to sustainable fishing, either by refusing to buy unsustainably sourced seafood or steering clear of fish harvested via destructive methods when choosing what to stock. Policymakers and industry leaders must encourage this shift in mindset all along the supply chain.

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