Bluefin auction catches headlines, while Japan exceeds catch limits for a second year

Published on
January 8, 2018

As usual on 4 January, the first tuna auction of the year was held this year at Japan’s Tsukiji Fish Market. And as usual, a shockingly high price, JPY 36.45 million (USD 323,311, EUR 267,798), was paid for the best and biggest Pacific bluefin tuna. 

This is a publicity stunt, designed to cement the fish’s place as a coveted luxury food. It also gets the high bidder in the national and international press. So the price paid is not for the fish, which will be retailed at a loss, but for advertising. The expense appears reasonable when contrasted with the USD 4.5 million (EUR 3.7 million) price of a 30-second television commercial during the Super Bowl.

Putting the spotlight on bluefin inevitably brings up the dwindling population of breeding-age fish. A single mature tuna lays a massive number of eggs, giving the possibility of a rebound in numbers, but few survive fishing pressure to reach adulthood at around four years of age.

Jamie Gibbon, an expert for The Pew Charitable Trusts’ global tuna conservation campaign said in a press release, “There was hope late last year when governments agreed on a rebuilding plan that could secure the long-term future of the species. However, if this highly prized species is to truly recover, it is critical that the rebuilding plan is successfully implemented by all of the nations who fish for Pacific bluefin. If countries continue to exceed their catch limits, as they have in recent years, the very survival of the species will be threatened.”

Gibbon refers to the agreement made in September 2017 at a joint meeting of the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC) Northern Committee and the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission (IATTC), which would rebuild the population from its current status of 2.6 percent of pre-fishing levels to 20 percent by 2034. The biomass of breeding-age fish fell to 17,000 metric tons (MT) in 2014. The target of the recovery plan is 130,000 MT.

The deal allows further cuts when the likelihood of reaching the goal falls below 75 percent, and allows for an increase when it reaches 65 percent. It is thought that Japan, which has often argued for larger catch limits, gave way to avoid a future endangered species listing for Pacific bluefin. However, they did argue, in vain, for a lower percentage for increasing the catch. 

The administration of U.S. President Donald Trump in August rejected a petition for Endangered Species Act listing in the U.S.A. The Atlantic bluefin (Thunnus thunnus) has been listed as “endangered” on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species, but the list puts the Pacific bluefin (Thunnus orientalis) in the “vulnerable” category. Southern bluefin (Thunnus maccoyii) is listed as “critically endangered.” 

The agreement included the main Pacific bluefin fishing nations: Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Mexico, and the United States. However, all but Taiwan exceeded their limits in the previous year and Japan failed in 2017 for a second year. 

Japan took more juvenile tuna in 2017 than the 4,007 MT limit to which it had previously agreed. It plans to deduct the amount from the following year. Large hauls in western Japan, and high bycatch in set nets was given as the reason. While it is possible to close a targeted fishery when limits are reached, it is not always possible to avoid bycatch, meaning that the limits may have to be set even more conservatively to allow for it.

The good news of the agreement, as well as progress in captive breeding of bluefin, may merely serve to take the focus off the continued decline of stocks unless the issues of exceeding catch limits and of excess catch of juveniles are addressed. 

Contributing Editor reporting from Osaka, Japan

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