The number of Pacific bluefin tuna, a fish that fetched a record 155.4 million yen ($1.78 million) in a Tokyo auction last week, dropped 96.4 percent due to decades of overfishing, the Pew Environment Group said.
The bluefin’s numbers have plummeted because of inadequate fishing regulations in the species’ western Pacific spawning area, Amanda Nickson, Pew’s director for global tuna conservation, said today in a phone interview. The stock assessment by the International Scientific Committee for Tuna and Tuna-Like Species in the North Pacific Ocean, a joint U.S.- Japan research group, is “shocking,” said Nickson.
Kiyomura K.K., a Tokyo-based sushi chain, paid the record price for a 222-kilogram (489-pound) bluefin on Jan. 5 at the year’s first tuna auction at the Tsukiji fish market. Concerns about overfishing had prompted some businesses such as Shangri-La Asia Ltd. and Hong Kong and Shanghai Hotels Ltd.’s Peninsula Hotels to pull bluefin from their menus.
“You have this incredibly valuable, sought-after fish where the first one of the year can be sold for over $1.7 million, yet it’s been allowed to become depleted to this truly frightening point,” Nickson said. “That is just not a situation that can continue.”
The 96.4 percent decline in spawning bluefin is compared with unfished levels, based on statistical modeling by the committee. It does not identify when the tuna’s population was at those levels.
The Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission, which governs fishing along the U.S. coast and other parts of the eastern Pacific, adopted rules in June limiting the number of fish that can be taken each season. Last summer’s season ended early when the limit was reached, Nickson said.
The Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission, which covers fisheries from Alaska to Australia, constrains the number of vessels and other equipment that may operate each season, while allowing those vessels to catch an unlimited amount of tuna.
Japanese officials have reviewed the International Scientific Committee’s report and plan to discuss regulations or other measures to be implemented in response, Shuya Nakatsuka, deputy manager of the Japan Fisheries Agency’s international unit, said by phone today. The population decline would be discussed when the WCPFC meets in September, he said.
“There have been cases in the past where the population of bluefin tuna has been low, but have recovered,” Nakatsuka said. “Still, the results show that the population is very low this time.”
Stocks declined 83 percent to about 22,600 metric tons in 2010 from about 132,000 in 1960, when they had already begun to be depleted, said Nickson, citing the report by the committee. More than 90 percent of bluefin that are caught are juveniles that have not yet reproduced, she said.
The Pew Environment Group is the conservation arm of Pew Charitable Trusts, a non-profit organization based in the U.S.
In an editorial today, the Nikkei newspaper said that Japan should take leadership in regulating tuna fishing, citing the record price at the auction and the dwindling tuna population due to a lack of control over large-scale fishers.
If Japan doesn’t lead the initiative soon, even the cheap tuna may not reach people’s dinner tables, the editorial said.