John Mimikakis on EDF’s contribution to Japan’s fisheries reform

The Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) is a New York City, New York, U.S.A.-based nonprofit environmental advocacy group. It was started after the founding members researched a link between use of DDT and a decline in local ospreys, following the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. They successfully campaigned to end the use of DDT in New York state, and subsequently nationwide. This was followed by work on passage of the Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974. 

EDF has expanded its work in many areas of environmental advocacy, including a focus on ocean conservation and sustainable management. A branch of the organization’s work focuses on preserving coral reefs and promoting sustainable fishing. 

In an interview with SeafoodSource, John Mimikakis, Vice President of the Environmental Defense Fund’s Oceans Program, explained that EDF relies heavily on research and education to bring about policy changes, and often proposes market-based solutions to give incentives for change. For example, in fisheries management, EDF supports fishing rights programs.

Based in Singapore, Mimikakis has been involved behind the scenes in nudging Japan toward the recent major reform of the country’s Basic Fisheries Law by providing expert advice and policy support to government officials, scientists, and regulators. EDF also has a small team in Tokyo headed by Kazu Otsuka.

An EDF statement on the passage of the reform by Japan’s legislature, the Diet, said, “The reform package incorporates several recommendations from EDF including expanding stock assessments to cover all commercial stocks and increasing the percentage of catch managed with science-based catch limits. In addition, the reforms include requiring recovery plans for overfished stocks within 10 years and establishing a system of individual vessel quotas with some transferability.”

SeafoodSource: What part did EDF play in the reform of Japan’s Basic Fisheries Law? 

Mimikakis: We started a few years ago making connections with academics in the U.S.A. and former officials in Japan. We worked with our NGO colleagues – Nature Conservancy, WWF, Sailors for the Sea. The David and Lucile Packard Foundation funded our work and a number of these groups and also introduced us to a great number of contacts. We networked at a symposium. We tried to engage with the decision-makers. We brought them on study tours. We showed them what has worked and we showed them bad examples, too. And we heard about what they were calling resource management, and that previous attempts were not transparent. We heard from Japanese officials a strong desire to strengthen the role science plays in resource management.

EDF connected policymakers with Bob Dooley, president of United Catcher Boats. Dooley and his brother started fishing in Alaska’s Bering Sea in 1978. By 1990, there was overcapitalization of the pollock fishery and individual transferable quotas (ITQ’s) were proposed as a solution. Despite skepticism, he got involved in designing the cooperative agreements. Over time, Dooley could see that the new system was more efficient and held greater potential for profit than how he’d been operating in the past, because he was able to focus on quality, not quantity.

Dooley stressed some key points: that the new system should set science-based TACs, that there must be greater accountability, that there must be flexibility, and that fishermen must have a voice in the process. Neither Dooley nor EDF pushed for ITQs, but rather emphasized the importance of including these four elements in ways that would work in the cultural context of Japan. 

Japan’s reform does not allow ITQs. Instead it creates a vessel quota system and allows some very limited transferability under certain circumstances. It is expected that this will help fisheries comply with the fishing limits the government will set with greater accountability without enabling the much greater transferability allowed by ITQs. Unlimited transferability is fairly controversial in Japan.

Given how hard it is for a foreign organization to gain traction in Japan, I thought 20 years of engagement would be needed before EDF saw results. But I found that there were politicians in Japan who were eager for reform. Diet Representative, Masaaki Taira told me that there was an appetite for change in Japan. We have since also met with a young Diet representative, Fumiaki Kobayashi, and were very surprised at how different the dynamic was.

I had heard that it was very unlikely that Japan would want to make any changes, since their traditions are so deeply rooted, and since they had a long history of territorial use rights fishing granted through the fishery cooperatives. But when I met with Ken Saito, Minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, and Saito showed interest in the idea, I thought, “This is the tip of the spear.”

SeafoodSource: What are the challenges going forward?

Mimikakis: Establishing a sense of accountability is important, accountability from the government, but also so that fishermen know that other fishermen are following the rules. There is an incentive now at the local cooperative level to conserve and manage the stock for the long term, but there is still competition between co-ops, so that if the neighboring cooperative is fishing aggressively, there is feeling that you are losing out if your co-op does not also fish aggressively. 

SeafoodSource: Won’t ITQ’s result in consolidation of ownership, with some possible negative social effects like alienation of the resource from local entrants?

Mimikakis: In theory, if there is overcapacity, any method may have this effect. It depends on how the community handles it. It is best handled by the community that is affected. There needs to be flexibility during a transition and this may include a financial mechanism such as subsidies or vessel buyouts structured as a loan. Something like this has been used on the West Coast of the U.S.A. In the case of Japan, the quota will be allocated by vessel rather than to an individual, and there will be limited transferability.

SeafoodSource: Moving forward, what are your biggest concerns with the new law?

Mimikakis: From now, Japan will have to deal with the science issues. They have to do stock assessments for 200 species. It is overwhelming, but they are starting to see a path.

EDF will try to support policymakers by providing study tours. They need help with good monitoring, information to use to make sound decisions. Methods to apply to data-poor species have been developed, such as in Belize and the U.S.A.

Japan can also modernize data management systems. Many of the reporting systems in Japan are old-fashioned and slow. There is also an opportunity to apply new technologies, such as underwater cameras and artificial intelligence (AI) at sea. EDF will try to bring expertise and case studies and provide information.

Although the recently-passed legislation was a big step forward, there is already some talk of another piece of legislation to follow up on some issues that were not addressed, mainly adopting a traceability system as used in the U.S.A. and the E.U. [The Seafood Import Monitoring Program (SIMP) in the USA, EU fisheries control regulation (EC) 1224/2009 in the European Union].

Japan will have to deal with industry concerns about revenue stability. The Diet could offer subsidies. Also, in quota management, give a voice to the fisheries co-ops. Help them to find the right way. For example, set net fishermen who catch many different kinds of species occasionally catch juvenile bluefin tuna for which a strict quota is set. If they catch too many bluefin, they may incur a fine. There has to be a system to transfer quota for these “choke species”. To avoid shutting down a fishery due to excessive bycatch, they will also have to do some R&D on gear modification, and the government may need to fund this. 

Japan has great technology and companies can collaborate with government and lead this technology Besides being a top fishing nation, Japan can influence regionally. Japan provides a lot of aid to others, like Indonesia. They could be hugely beneficial through technology transfer.

Photo courtesy of John Mimikakis


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