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The Japanese consume up to 80 per cent of bluefin tuna caught in the Mediterranean.
The Japanese consume up to 80 per cent of bluefin tuna caught in the Mediterranean.
The Japanese consume up to 80 per cent of bluefin tuna caught in the Mediterranean.

Spotlight on bluefin, but is there a catch in store?

Subbed the the International Conspiracy to Catch All Tuna, the ICCAT has an opportunity to live up to its true name and act in the interests of the popular species of fish.

Dubbed the International Conspiracy to Catch All Tuna, the ICCAT has an opportunity to live up to its true name and act in the interests of the popular species of fish

The 48 member countries and regions of the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tuna (ICCAT) gather in Paris today, with the spotlight on whether they are prepared to declare a moratorium on the fishing of bluefin tuna.

If they are then the Japanese, who consume up to 80 per cent of bluefin tuna caught in the Mediterranean, will have to alter their eating habits, while fishermen and fish farmers in the Mediterranean and Adriatic may be forced to make ends meet by driving trucks for a few years.

In extreme cases in recent years, bluefin weighing more than 400kg have commanded prices of 100,000 (Dh4,420) per kilo at market in Tokyo, reflecting the healthy demand that underscores a US$4 billion (Dh14.69bn) business.

That demand supports an industry of fishing ships that in their rush to snatch up the ocean's bluefin for the Japanese market have discarded traditional pole and line techniques, and invested in purse seiners that encircle the fish with weighted nets with a drawn string attached to the bottom. These nets can take in entire schools of bluefin along with a collateral catch of endangered fish.

The bluefin are taken to fish farms, dubbed tuna ranches, where they are fattened, slaughtered and frozen for delivery to the Japanese market on demand, with no consideration for fishing or spawning seasons.

No one involved in the supply chain wants to see restrictions placed on their livelihood. But, that is what is becoming increasingly necessary as some estimates have the remaining bluefin stock as low as 12 per cent of the levels in 1950. Statistics also point to markets in Japan selling smaller and lighter fish, raising the possibility that bluefin are being caught, killed, frozen and shipped before spawning the next generation.

At the height of the market around 2004, bluefin was a 65bn business in Japan, but restrictions on catch and imports have reduced this figure to between 35bn and 40bn, with the prospect of trade shrinking to about 30bn from next year.

Questions about the legality of the fish arriving on Japan's shores led ICCAT to introduce a catch certification system in 2008. Known as the Bluefin Catch Data system, the checks have been fully applied by Japan since last year.

But, what is supposed to constitute a stringent oversight of the paperwork related to tuna catches has been found to be riddled with defects, including incomplete answers, forms being used more than once, or fish farms attempting to show that double the number of bluefin exited compared with the number that were entered - and this from a fish known not to procreate in captivity.

In a surprise for Japan ,which has been known as an aggressive legislator but reluctant executor of laws and regulations, at one stage the Japanese agriculture, forestry and fisheries ministry stopped between 3,600 and 3,800 tonnes of illicit bluefin from entering the country.

Some 800 tonnes is said to still be lacking the necessary guarantees and will be either shipped back to home ports or the fish farmers involved will be required to release an equivalent amount of bluefin from their farms before being allowed to resume shipments to Japan.

In an attempt to prevent a repeat of the international defeat it suffered when dealing with the whale, Japan has said it may push for the fish farms to be closed if there is no improvement, and will support a moratorium on bluefin fishing.

And that leaves the ball in ICCAT's court. Ridiculed in the past as The International Conspiracy to Catch All Tuna, the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tuna has the chance in Paris this week to live up to its true name and put the interests of the bluefin over those of purse seiners.

business@thenational.ae

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