Study: High risk of illegal seafood imports entering Japanese market

Published on
August 1, 2017
Japan market

More than one-third of the wild-caught fisheries products imported into Japan – one of the world’s biggest seafood markets – could come from illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) activities, claims a new study.

A paper published in the journal of Marine Policy estimates that 24 to 36 percent of the 2.15 million metric tons (MT) of wild-caught seafood imports that entered the Japanese market in 2015 – valued at USD 1.6 billion (EUR 1.4 billion) to USD 2.4 billion (EUR 2 billion) – were of illegal or unreported origin. 

The investigation, conducted by a team of researchers from the University of British Columbia (UBC), assessed 27 seafood products coming from nine leading source countries to Japan. Some products such as imported Chinese eel were found to be up to 75 percent illegally harvested.

According to the study’s findings, the current import control system in Japan poses very little deterrent to the entry of illegal seafood. Japan has yet to implement the same anti-IUU and traceability standards as the United States and the EU, including a lack of import regulations to verify product legality. 

Furthermore, while a limited catch documentation scheme is implemented for bluefin tuna, Russian crab, and Patagonian toothfish as part of Japan’s commitments to regional fisheries management organizations (RFMOs) and other international agreements, such arrangements do not apply to the bulk of its seafood imports.  

The UBC team included research members that completed a similar study of illegal imports into the United States market, which highlighted similarly high IUU risks with 20 to 32 percent of U.S. seafood imports found to be of IUU origin. That study secured significant attention in the United States and helped spur U.S. government action, including the Obama Task Force on IUU Fishing and the US Seafood Import Monitoring Program. 

“Sourcing practices in the principal seafood market states such as the U.S., Japan and EU can have ripple effects on fishery management practices in developing countries. The need for market state responsibility to control IUU trading practices has already captured the attention of policymakers in both the United States and EU. There is an urgent need for similar reforms in the Japanese seafood procurement system,” said the new study’s author Dr. Ganapathiraju Pramod. 

The report also recommends actions to minimize the risk of illegal products from entering the Japanese supply chain, including:

  • Strengthening Japan’s customs and import inspection regime, ensuring that appropriate measures are taken to verify the legality and origin of seafood at all points-of-entry, both by sea and air. 
  • Strengthening Japan’s domestic fisheries policy and regulatory framework – for both imported and domestic seafood – to mitigate IUU risk and increase traceability and transparency. In particular, traceability standards for industry should be established that require key data elements are used to verify the origin and legality of all seafood, from point of harvest to end market.
  • A dialogue should be initiated with Japan’s seafood industry and major seafood importers in order to adopt appropriate traceability systems and other voluntary, market-based measures to prevent IUU products from entering respective supply chains.
  • Conducting additional studies, including DNA and economic impact analysis, to evaluate the effect of illegal and/or mislabeled seafood products in Japanese seafood supply chains.
Contributing Editor reporting from London, UK

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