With respect, Japan is on board with seafood sustainability

Published on
September 25, 2017

A recent study published in the journal of Marine Policy cast a familiar shadow over the Japanese seafood market. This report estimated that more than one-third of the wild-caught fisheries products imported into Japan were of illegal or unreported origin, and, among many other criticisms, it stated that the country’s fisheries policies and traceability systems for imported and domestic seafood were not up to scratch.

While these latest evaluations haven’t been contested to any notable degree, nor have previous analyses highlighting that Japan’s fishermen have been steadily catching less seafood over the course of the last 20 years while more than 80 percent of the 50 main stocks assessed in the country’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) are now categorized by central government as being at low or medium levels, the lack of visible action only tells part of the story. This is because to gauge Japan’s sustainable seafood progress with Western eyes is a flawed undertaking. Indeed, to borrow an appropriate old English phrase, when it comes to seafood sustainability, Japan is a very different kettle of fish compared to the likes of the United States and Europe and the momentum seen in those markets. 

Shunji Murakami, Japan program director at international NGO Ocean Outcomes, told SeafoodSource that traditionally the island nation has always had a firm grasp on the concept of sustainability and using seafood in a sustainable way, but the cultural perception of what sustainability is in Japan is considerably different from how it is seen in Western markets.

“While Japan is probably around 10 years behind how the U.S. and E.U. markets see sustainability, change is definitely taking place and progress is most certainly being made,” he said. 

The retail group AEON, for example, has set a goal of having 10 percent of its seafood sales coming from fisheries certified to the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) and Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC) standards by 2020, and while being a frontrunner in the Japanese market, it is not alone in having these ambitions, he said. 

To emphasize the cultural differences between the Japanese and Western perceptions of sustainability, Murakami highlighted the chum salmon fishery in the northernmost island of Hokkaido, which produces the largest volume of this species in the Pacific Ocean. Contributing to a total annual supply of 100,000 metric tons (MT) of chum, the fishery operates an enhancement program with the earliest hatchery in situ some 120 years ago.  

“The enhancement program is part of Japan’s definition of sustainability. In Japan, being sustainable is also about sustainable effort and resources. However, Western countries want to differentiate between the wild salmon and the enhanced fish, so the concept of sustainability is different at a basic level,” he said. 

“Another reason to say Japan is 10 years behind is to illustrate or provide a measurement to show how the U.S. and EU seafood markets have developed. But it is important to stress that we cannot simply copy and paste a successful solution from the West – that happened in the United States or the E.U. – and drop it into Japan and expect it to work. The environment is different and so the solutions need to be different as well.”

There has, nevertheless, been a lot of external pressure from a number of international NGOs exerted on the Japanese government to reform its policy and market behaviors. Some of these efforts have been met with resistance from Japanese consumers, the market and indeed the government, as the Japanese, like many countries, are wary when told how to manage and eat their seafood, said Murakami. 

“Because there is no real history of collaboration with NGOs in Japan, Ocean Outcomes works cooperatively – helping the fisheries and the market to become more sustainable,” he said. “Japan is unique; everything is based on trust and relationships, with people seeking to grow consensus before making any new decisions. Japanese culture is built on risk aversion. The approach takes a little longer, but once we have those relationships and trust in place, it rolls ahead fast with people really focused and committed to what needs to be done.”

The country has also started to tackle its IUU import problems, including earlier this year ratifying the Port State Measures Agreement (PSMA) – the international treaty that helps countries recognize and respond to illegal catches arriving at their ports. Murakami hailed the move as a “great achievement” by the Japanese government, but said that much more reform is required from the state, including much tougher regulations and traceability programs, to fight against such imports.

“At the same time, the government needs reasons to go down this route; it needs more data, more information on why IUU imports are a threat to the Japanese market and why national assets – Japanese resources, fishermen, and companies – need protection from it,” he said. “It needs success stories to come from the domestic market – and that is what Ocean Outcomes is working to generate.”

Ocean Outcomes has been working in the Japanese market since the organization’s official launch in 2015, but through its previous incarnation as a program of the Wild Salmon Center – which developed fisheries improvement projects (FIPs) in Russian salmon fisheries and for chum salmon in Hokkaido – it has had an involvement in Japanese fisheries going back to the early 2000s.

Ocean Outcomes’ workload has been on a significant incline since its establishment, said Murakami. He highlighted the launch of a FIP for a sea perch fishery in Tokyo Bay in November last year. This initiative is being driven by the mid-scale purse-seine fishermen and the distributor operating in the fishery and also Walmart’s Japanese arm Seiyu, with products from the fishery being sold in 20 of its stores in Tokyo.

“Not only are we helping fishery stakeholders to move towards more sustainable practices, we are also working with them to help improve traceability,” he said.

By working with the market to implement traceability systems for all species, not only does it demonstrate improvement actions through FIPs and aquaculture improvement projects (AIP), it also proves that traceability systems can work and fit into the context of Japanese culture in ways that benefit fishermen and fishing communities, he said.

“I think good progress will continue to be made, but Japan should also be ambitious and never satisfied. An important milestone will be the 2020 Tokyo Olympics,” Murakami said. “There is an improvement policy for seafood, but a lot of reforms are needed to align with the aspirational goals that the games in London and Rio made. However, I am confident that having the Olympics here will create a tailwind and drive more fisheries to pursue sustainability efforts.”

Murakami would, therefore, like to see more encouragement come Japan’s way from NGOs and international markets, instead of continuing the “negative bashing” tactics, which he acknowledged are a natural response but one that he feels “doesn’t tend to lead to anything positive.”

Contributing Editor reporting from London, UK

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