Japan’s fisheries white paper reviews trends of FY2019

Published on
June 24, 2020

On 16 June, Japan’s Fisheries Agency released its Annual White Paper on Fisheries, which is divided into two parts: FY2019 Trends in Fisheries, and FY2020 Fisheries Policy.

The FY2019 report, divided into multiple chapters, covers everything from the state of the country’s fisheries resources to the state of current international disputes related to territorial fishing rights in areas around Japan.  Included in the report is some hard data about the country’s fishing value and output, which indicates that private fishing vessels saw declines in earnings in 2018, and that total fishery values declined as well.

Managing fishery resources

In line with last year’s major revision of the Fisheries Act – which will see the number of species managed by total allowable catch (TAC) greatly expanded from the current eight – the Fisheries Agency will expand the fish species subject to resource evaluation from 50 species to 67 species, and the TAC will be managed through individual quota (IQ). Currently, most species are managed by total allowable effort (TAE), such as closed seasons and gear restrictions.

Now, resource management will be based on maximum sustainable yield (MSY). Within Japan's exclusive economic zone, 48 out of 80 fish species have high or medium resource levels.

In Japan, prefectural and local fishery cooperatives share responsibility with the government for resource management. To further promote the creation and implementation of resource management plans, the Fisheries Agency is establishing a resource management guideline, in addition to supporting systematic resource management efforts through fishery income stabilization measures – which includes subsidizing the income of fishermen when they voluntarily reduce catches for resource recovery.

The report also addresses changes to the TAC set for juvenile Pacific bluefin tuna in Japanese waters. Currently, it is allocated among the prefectures, but because the movement of bluefin schools are unpredictable, and unexpected bycatch, it has been hard to manage, often resulting in unused quota.

To address this, the bluefin tuna subcommittee – housed within the resource management subcommittee of the Fisheries Policy Council – has formulated a system for adapting catch quotas among prefectures and the types of fisheries as necessary. Introducing quota pooling has in the past been difficult, as all quota-holders wanted to hold their unused quota until the end of the year, when prices are the highest.

Japan also plans to target illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing by dramatically increasing penalties for poaching in the ocean by non-fishermen. Poaching by licensed fishermen, once an issue, has been decreasing, while that by non-fishermen has dramatically increased (to 1,484 marine cases, and 85 for fresh water in 2018). According to the report, organized criminal (yakuza) gangs are increasingly involved, using ever more sophisticated techniques.

Japan also plans to target IUU fishing from sources outside the country by increasing the monitoring and crackdowns on foreign vessels illegally fishing in Japan’s exclusive economic zone – particularly North Korean and Chinese fishing around the Sea of ​​Japan’s Yamato Bank. The Fisheries Agency intends to force them out, using measures such as water cannons if necessary. To assist in this, in 2018, Japan established a fishery control headquarters, and in 2019 dispatched two new fishing control vessels to the area.

On the production side of sustainability, the country plans to do more to boost fish populations. Hatchery releases will be conducted for about 70 species, and the construction of artificial reefs and mounds will be promoted to create habitat. In rivers, fishways will be constructed, and freshwater habitats restored, in the hopes of bolstering both the species that travel in them, and those that rely on those species for food.

In response to the impacts of climate change, a government panel said the fishing industry will have to cope with changes in migration and population of fish, and potentially lower catches as a result. To help mitigate the industry’s impact on climate change, Japan plans to promote carbon capture by restoring kelp beds, and also hopes to reduce carbon emissions by promoting electric-powered fishing boats.

Plastic pollution, as well, is being targeted. The use of marine biodegradable fishing gear will be promoted, and technology for recycling fishing gear will be disseminated. The country also plans to protect certain areas of its coastline in line with the 2010 Convention on Biological Diversity. By the end of 2020, 10 percent of coastal and marine areas will be protected by marine protected areas.

A changing industry

In 2018, fishery and aquaculture production in Japan increased by 120,000 metric tons (MT) – or 3 percent from the previous year – to 4.42 million tons. Of that, capture fishery tonnage increased by 1 percent, while aquaculture tonnage – mainly scallops – increased 2 percent. By value, Japan’s 2018 capture and aquaculture sales declined by 3 percent, with this mainly due to anasakis parasites in bonito tuna resulting in a price drop, coupled with a sharp decline in squid catch.

In 2019, several species saw declines in stocks, but this was not always due to overfishing. For salmon, the reason was water temperatures unsuitable for the survival of fry. In the case of saury, the resource decreased due to poor survival of larvae, and because high water temperatures along the coast of Japan that kept the schools farther offshore.

The average income of private fishing vessels declined in 2018, mainly due to higher fuel prices. Company owned vessels lost money when taking equipment depreciation into account, but technically cleared a profit before depreciation. Falling fish prices due to strong catches, and higher oil prices, were the main reasons cited. However, despite the impacts to vessels and fishermen, income from processing rose.

In aquaculture, it is expected that demand from China and the effects of El Niño will drive prices up. To reduce the impact, the Fisheries Agency is promoting the development of low-fishmeal feed formulations.

Regarding labor, the number of fishery workers has continued to fall, down by 1 percent in 2018, to 151,701. As the children of fishing households do not necessarily follow in their parent’s footsteps as in the past, seminars will be held around the country to introduce fishing as a career to those with no experience in it.

The government will also support students pursuing technical studies and on-the-job training programs. There is particularly a shortage of qualified marine engineers, due to many of them aging out of the industry. In response, training of engineers will begin in the fourth year of fisheries high schools followed by an embarkation (at-sea) course at the Fisheries University, in order to shorten the training period for the marine engineer examination. Another method to combat this decrease is a change in the work visas law at the end of 2018, which has allowed, since April 2019, acceptance of foreigners with skills in the fields of fishing or aquaculture, and in food manufacturing (including fish processing). Foreign technical trainee interns in the fishery and aquaculture fields is increasing year by year, with 1,738 in fishing and 1,851 in aquaculture (as of 1 March, 2019).

Regarding technology, the agency is promoting the spread of broadband Internet service at sea, which is currently very expensive. It aims to spread the use of the automatic identification systems to avoid collisions. It also plans to promote the use of drones, robots, artificial intelligence and the Internet of Things in fisheries.

To help reduce the burden on small-scale seafood processors, development of shared-use facilities in collaboration with fishery cooperatives will also be promoted.

The number of facilities HACCP-certified to export to the European Union in the fishery processing industry is 75, and the number of facilities certified to export to the U.S. is 454. Small processors may have difficulty in managing a HACCP program, as it is expensive to maintain facilities, and employees may not be sufficiently trained.

As the government would like to increase exports, it will promote the construction of advanced cargo handling facilities at ports and improved hygiene management at wholesale markets in line with HACCP.

International relations

Regarding the international situation concerning fisheries, the paper notes that the worldwide capture fishery volume is flat, while aquaculture is increasing (about 3 percent in 2018).

Various conflicts exist with other countries over the boundaries of Japan’s EEZ, particularly with South Korea and China, due to conflicting claims over islands. Though these can sometimes be resolved by sharing the resource, in practice, the use of different gear types often causes problems, such as entanglement. As a result, Japanese fishing vessels are often forced to abandon shared areas.

Japan also pays to fish in the EEZs of Pacific island nations, the source of much tuna. However, these countries have demanded higher fees and investments in processing plants and joint ventures. From 2020, Palau set aside most of its EEZ as a marine protected area, banning commercial fishing. Japan was ultimately able to negotiate limited access, however, in the Pacific islands, China is increasing its influence through large-scale assistance programs and is competing with Japan for access rights.

The chapter also mentions that Japan may restart commercial whaling within its own EEZ after its withdrawal from the International Whaling Commission, effective last year. The target whales are not endangered species. The previous scientific whaling in Antarctica and the Northwest Pacific has been discontinued.

Changes in supply and demand

The annual per-capita consumption of seafood in Japan continues to decline: in 2018, it was 23.9 kilograms per capita, down by 0.5 kilograms. Overall protein consumption has leveled off, though the portion supplied by meat is gaining. School lunch programs are being used to try to influence children’s eating habits toward eating fish.

The government is utilizing promotional programs to try and boost the country’s seafood consumption. The “Fast Fish” program, for example, selects seafood products for promotion that can be prepared simply, such as by microwaving or frying. These typically are deboned and usually pre-breaded, spiced, or in sauce.

Eco-label programs in Japan are mainly the domestic Marine Eco-Label and Aquaculture Eco-Label; and the Marine Stewardship Council and Aquaculture Stewardship Council programs. To promote the acquisition of certifications, the National Research Institute of Fisheries Sciences and Education has led a project to make an easily indexed template to collect, organize, and register the materials necessary for the certification examinations, and obtain the certification. It is called the “Fisheries Eco-Label Certification Examination Support System (MuSESC).”

Japan’s imports of seafood increased in 2019 by 4 percent. The items with the highest import values were salmon/trout (12.7 percent), skipjack/tuna (11 percent), and shrimp (10.5 percent). In 2019, the volume of exports decreased by 15 percent from the previous year, mainly due to a decrease in the catch of mackerel – which is a main export product – and the unrest in Hong Kong, which is the top export destination. The total export value decreased 5 percent.

Japan’s main marine export items, and their main destinations, were scallops , with 60 percent sent to China; pearls, with 86.6 percent sent to Taiwan; yellowtail, with the majority sent to the U.S.; sea cucumbers, with 89.9 percent sent to Taiwan; mackerel, split between Indonesia and Vietnam; and bonito/tuna (Thailand). Some of these exports are doubtless for low-cost processing, rather than direct consumption.

Disaster prevention and recuperation

The white paper also discusses the recovery of fisheries from disasters, and preventing damage in the event of future ones, including the creation of safe fishing villages using breakwaters and seawalls and establishing new evacuation routes from fishing ports. The constructions are based on the damage caused by the Great East Japan Earthquake. The value of fishery production in 2019 was just 76 percent of that in the year before the 2011 earthquake, and subsequent tsunami, struck, and the value was just 66 percent.

However, this seems more to reflect fluctuations in fish stocks – such as a decline in scallop production – and poor saury and squid catches, rather than being due to destruction of facilities. The value had previously reached as high as 93 percent of the former amount.

The remaining challenge posed by the earthquake is mainly convincing other nations to lift import restrictions on Japanese fishery products from the prefectures surrounding Fukushima. Japanese tests have already shown acceptable levels of radiation for several years, yet several main export markets maintain bans on seafood from the region.

Japan took its case against South Korean restrictions to the World Trade Organization (WTO), but on appeal, due to technicalities, Korea was not forced to lift its ban.

Photo courtesy of popokoko-nyanya/Shutterstock

Contributing Editor reporting from Osaka, Japan

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