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Emptying seas, mounting tensions in fish-hungry Asia

Asia's seafood addiction is depleting the oceans and stirring diplomatic tensions. The region consumes 70% of the world's fish, a share poised to rise as the middle class expands. Fishing operators are searching for bigger hauls, while governments are increasingly protective of marine resources. The seas are churning with competition and disputes.

TOKYO At 3 a.m. one October night, in a dark and smelly Nagasaki port in western Japan, a 300-ton steel fishing boat from the East China Sea was unloading its catch. Not a man among the tired crew was smiling. One fisherman sighed. "The haul is so tiny," he lamented. The boat contained eight massive tanks but six were empty. And most of the fish in the hold were not mackerel, the hoped-for prize. Instead, the fishermen were unloading smaller and less-pricey fish to market.

The East China Sea -- bounded by Japan, South Korea, China and Taiwan -- used to be a trove for Japanese fishermen, but the situation has dramatically changed in the last decade. The life of Toshiro Nomura, 67, tells the story.

A Japanese fisherman takes a cigarette break after returning to Nagasaki with a dismal catch. (Photo by Kentaro Iwamoto)

Nomura was born in a fisherman's family in the western frontier Goto Islands of Nagasaki, long a base for profitable deep-sea fishing. His father established a fishing company in 1961 and enjoyed a plentiful business from the East China Sea throughout his lifetime. Nomura took over in 2005. In less than a decade, he shut down his operations. "There was no hope for the future," Nomura said.

Diminishing catches and increasing equipment costs battered his ambition, but Nomura said it was the unstoppable wave of Chinese boats that made him call it quits in 2014. "We have been interrupted by Chinese boats a lot." Nomura said it was not unusual to see a fleet of 200 to 300 boats roll into his traditional fishing waters. It was so dense that his own boats could barely sail through.

The Chinese operate legally, he admits, and they work in a zone where both countries have fishing rights. Still, Nomura said, the Chinese surge drowns prospects for traditional or smaller companies. "If we leave the East China Sea as it is, all the fish in the area will be China's."

INSATIABLE APPETITE The seas in Asia and the Pacific are troubled waters these days for the fishing industry. Nearly a third of the world's fish stock is being "overfished" -- harvested at biologically unsustainable levels -- according to assessments by the United Nations. In part, that is because Asians are hungry, and ready to pay, for its regional bounty.

A recent report by the U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organization found that Asians ate 99 million tons of fish in 2013 -- about 70% of the 140 million tons that were available for human consumption. Fish meal production -- made from smaller fish that are less valuable -- is also on the rise for use in feeding livestock and to support aquafarms.

As commercial fishermen have rushed to take advantage of rising demand, governments are trying to grapple with the economic and environmental fallout of intense trawling and fishing. Among the seafood prompting debate are tuna and sea cucumbers, highly valued delicacies in the region.

When a subcommittee meeting of the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission was held in Japan in late August, tuna was high on the agenda. Members were adamant about defending their national interest in the tuna trade. The nine-member group failed to agree on how best to ensure sustainability.

Japan, the world's largest tuna consumer, proposed that if evidence showed that tuna spawn was low for three consecutive years, fishing could be restricted to half the present catch limits. But the delegation from the U.S., where environmental groups demand more strict resource management, called the proposal "too loose." Taiwan countered that the cuts were "too strict." One negotiator from Japan's Fisheries Agency told the Nikkei Asian Review that the talks were so heated that "there was no way to advance the discussion."

The spiny slithery sea cucumber -- revered by Chinese cooks as a tonic and now trading near all-time highs -- is also stirring international troubles in the South Pacific. In the last year, at least seven Vietnamese boats were seized and destroyed in Australia while fishing for sea cucumber. In August, Micronesia said it seized up to 20 tons of the fish allegedly harvested by Vietnamese fishermen. A jump in market prices in Asia for sea cucumber -- the Australian Fisheries Management Authority says prices have increased by 30% each year for the past five years -- gives fishermen incentive to violate other countries' territorial waters.

FEELING THE HEAT Overzealous fishing is not the only problem. Global warming is apparently making the situation worse. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, the harvest from marine fisheries in Southeast Asia is expected to fall by between 10% and 30% by 2050 relative to recent catch levels as water temperatures rise. In some sea areas near Thailand and Indonesia, the harvests are forecast to drop over 40% in the same period.

Still, world fish production is projected to increase and meet the demand -- all thanks to aquafarming. The FAO predicts that aquaculture will increase fish production by nearly 40% by 2025.

"Aquaculture could potentially cover the future gap created in our diet due to fish stock loss," said Yoshitaka Ota, director of the Nippon Foundation Nereus Program and research associate at the Institute for the Oceans and Fisheries, University of British Columbia. However, farmed fish may be an acquired taste, he said. "The aquacultured fish that are increasing in volume, such as catfish or tilapia, are not the species preferred for consumption by all countries. Therefore it won't fill the gap unless we change our consumption preferences."

Tokyo's Tsukiji fish market, one of the largest in the world, may already see the future. The Pacific saury is a mainstay of Japanese dinner tables in autumn. This year, small saury, which normally are used for canned food, are being sold to retailers to market as grilled fish. "The situation is worsening year by year," said Yasuteru Kobayashi, operating officer of the fresh fish department at wholesaler Tohto Suisan.

Part of the demand for fresh fish across Asia is supported by improved shipping and logistics. Just a few years ago, sushi and sashimi were hard to come by in the inland Chinese city of Chengdu, more than 1,000km from the coast. But Ma Haiqin, a 28-year-old worker at a local software company, now often buys tuna sashimi from a foreign-owned supermarket in the Sichuan Province city.

The tuna is shipped in from the coastal city of Dalian, more than 2,000km away, by refrigerated trucks. The supermarket's supervisor said such logistical improvements have transformed the market for fish.

In Chengdu, tuna sashimi costs about 35 yuan ($5.16) for a package of five slices -- nearly double the price for salmon sashimi. But tuna sashimi apparently has become popular among a younger generation of Asian consumers who travel and have money to spend on high-quality food. They are also conscious of the health benefits of fish.

Ma Haiqin now experiments by making sushi at home with tuna, boiled shrimp, salmon and seaweed. She watches videos online to ensure she prepares the fish properly. "I became a fan of sashimi during a trip to Japan," she said.

The FAO's report predicts that by 2025, per capita fish consumption will increase by 12% in Asia and Oceania, excluding Japan, Australia and New Zealand. The growth will be especially fast in China, with consumption seen increasing nearly 20%, compared with a global average of 8%. Japan is one of the few countries in the region where, due mainly to a large aging population, fish consumption is expected to fall, at an estimated 2%.

All this means that the waters around Asia are seas of competition. And authorities are increasingly sensitive to those fishing for big profits off their shores.

"We would like to come and visit your boat." With that polite warning, a Thai navy ship gave chase Oct.19 to a small fishing boat in the Gulf of Thailand near Pattaya. Six navy soldiers eventually boarded the vessel to question the captain, asking for the registration documents and the crew roster. They opened the holding tank to see what the fisherman had caught -- and then released them without incident.

This surprise check is part of the Thai navy's latest campaign to crack down on overfishing and the possible use of illegal labor. It is also an attempt by Thailand to limit breaches of its territorial waters -- something more Pacific nations are doing as part of stepped-up efforts to fight illegal fishing.

According to a recent report by the Pacific Islands Forum Fisheries Agency, illegal fishing in the Pacific costs the industry up to 338,475 tons of tuna, or the equivalent of $740 million, a year.

A Thai naval vessel, right, approaches a fishing boat for an inspection in the Gulf of Thailand on Oct. 19. (Photo by Nozomu Ogawa)

Australia is among the countries that have seen a significant increase in illegal fishing vessels in their waters. Data from the Australian Fisheries Management Authority shows that 20 illegal foreign fishing boats were apprehended in the 2015 fiscal year ended in June, up from six the previous year.

SHOW OF FORCE Some authorities in the region have responded aggressively. In September, three Chinese fishermen were killed in a boat fire near South Korea. According to local reports, South Korean maritime police threw flash grenades into the boat after it ignored a warning. The police said the boat was suspected of illegal fishing.

South Korea said in early October that it would use greater force in dealing with Chinese boats fishing illegally in its waters, including shooting at them. It recently summoned China's ambassador to protest an incident in which a South Korean coast guard vessel was rammed by a Chinese boat that was allegedly fishing illegally. South Korea told the ambassador that the incident was "a challenge to public power."

Illegal fishing, some fear, has the potential to unmoor diplomatic relations. Masanori Miyahara, president of the Japan Fisheries Research and Education Agency, said economies depend on the seas and countries need to be aware that competition along the coastlines is churning unease.

"For small countries like those in the South Pacific, illegal fishing by just one foreign boat can cause distrust toward the country," he said. "One illegal fishing incident between two big countries could trigger high-level diplomatic talks."

Nikkei staff writers Makoto Nakatogawa and Ami Yamada in Tokyo, Shunsuke Tabeta in Beijing, Yukako Ono in Bangkok and contributing writer Michael Field in Auckland contributed to this report.

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