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People eat sushi alongside blocks of tuna in Tokyo. The Fukushima nuclear disaster left the Japanese fishing industry reeling. Koji Sasahara / AP Photo
People eat sushi alongside blocks of tuna in Tokyo. The Fukushima nuclear disaster left the Japanese fishing industry reeling. Koji Sasahara / AP Photo

Japan fishery industry under threat

The 15th Japan International Seafood & Technology Expo kicks off in Tokyo tomorrow and, until relatively recently, the event would be a beacon of pride for the country.

The 15th Japan International Seafood & Technology Expo kicks off in Tokyo tomorrow and, until relatively recently, the event would be a beacon of pride for the country.

But the challenges facing its fishermen today are multiple and complex. One key problem relates to over fishing, with dozens of species in decline in waters around the Japanese archipelago. Among the most at risk is bluefin tuna, a fish prized by sushi lovers that has been endangered for years, with numbers plummeting in the Northern Pacific Ocean.

However, one of the most recent - and high profile - problems facing Japan's fishermen is the legacy of the infamous Fukushima nuclear disaster in March 2011, which left the fishing industry reeling. In addition to the fishermen unable to continue fishing in the designated disaster zones, even those who were able to continue elsewhere in Japan struggled with an invariable loss of public confidence among consumers.

This month, Tokyo Electric Power Co (Tepco), operators of the plant, confirmed the discovery of on-going radioactive leakages into the ocean.

South Korean environmental groups are already calling for a boycott of Japanese fish imports before there is assurance they are safe to eat.

"Fisheries off Fukushima remain closed because of radioactive contamination," says Ken Buesseler, a scientist from the US-based Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

"The big question we can't answer is 'for how long?' Many types of fish have decreasing levels of cesium [an element of nuclear waste], but some remain stubbornly high, such as the bottom-dwelling fish. It is mostly confined to the areas closest to the Fukushima nuclear power plants.

"There is little that can be done to actively reduce contamination levels, but the continued leakage from the nuclear power plant may be contributing to keeping the levels higher than expected," he says, adding that further investigation is needed.

It is not only nuclear issues that are threatening the industry. Japan formally became the 12th nation to join Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) free trade agreement negotiations last month and attended its first meeting in Malaysia - despite vociferous opposition from workers in Japan's agricultural and fisheries sectors.

Thousands of fisherman and farmers protested at government offices across the country - including 7,000 in Hokkaido. The main reason for the opposition is the TPP's abolition of tariffs and the resultant international competition Japan's fishing industry will be exposed to.

To add to the catalogue of challenges, fishermen in the south of Japan face a further issue - territorial disputes and the rise of regional neighbours such as China. But some Japanese fishermen have taken affairs into their own hands.

On the southernmost Ishigaki Island in Okinawa, near the Senkaku islands at the heart of a regional territorial dispute, local fishermen recently met their counterparts in Taiwan to attempt to discuss these issues and attempt to find a solution, according to Japanese media reports.

But it seems even Mother nature has it in for some parts of the South East Asian industry.

Shrimp prices are rocketing to all-time highs, amid a disease that is plaguing the three largest prawn producers: Thailand; China; and Vietnam. White shrimp prices are nearing US$6 a pound, up 56 per cent from a year ago, according to an index from Urner Barry, a US business publisher specialising in market news for the food and fisheries sector.

Thailand is the world's largest shrimp producer and has been hit hardest. The country alone supplies about 30 per cent of the tropical shrimp in the West and is expected to see its supply cut in half this year.

"After a decade of explosive growth, the global farmed shrimp industry has reached a turning point," Rabobank analysts said in a recent report called Shrimp in a Crimp.

Interestingly, however, lobster prices have tumbled.

The average 4 ounce lobster tail cost $13.25, according to Urner Barry. That is still more than 2 pounds of shrimp, but it is the lowest price in 11 years, as warmer water and fewer predators have boosted numbers.

In fact, over-supply has become such a problem for fisherman in Maine, state officials recently approved a $2 million campaign to promote their lobsters both in the US and abroad.

Perhaps Asia's fishermen will soon have even more to worry about.

 

business@thenational.ae

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