Japan seems to have a way with the fishes, as both scientists and fisherman have dredged up some very rare sea creatures recently. In December a research team "succeeded in filming a giant squid live -- possibly for the first time", according to a CNN report. The researchers suggested that the capture of this 24 foot squid, filmed live for audiences worldwide, might mean that other members of the genus Architeuthis were more plentiful than previously thought. Unfortunately though, as they snared their specimen for study, it "put up quite a fight" then "died while being caught".
Then last week Japanese fisherman spotted a rare frilled shark Chlamydoselachus anguineus, which they also caught and filmed live-ish. They transferred the so called living fossil to a marine park, but the shark, which observers suggested was sick, "died hours after it was caught". The benefit of shark's untimely death was that film makers could then get shots of the now formerly living fossil lying on floor, with a man lying next to it for proportion so that TV audiences could get a sense of its size -- about the same size as the man.
Given these fateful events, when news reports last week described Japan's position as the host of an international meeting of the world's five Regional Fisheries Management Organizations (RFMO) as "highly symbolic", we wondered what they meant. Government representatives were convening in Kobe to work on measures to protect endangered tuna fisheries and stocks. Tuna stocks had suffered precipitous declines in the past couple of decades because tuna is the world's most popular and regularly over-harvested fish. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) stated recently:
"nearly 70% of the world's fisheries are either overexploited or nearly fully exploited, due primarily to a growing world demand for fish and a harvesting capacity that is increasing more rapidly than is the catch of fish."
In 2004 Atlantic bluefin tuna capable of spawning had decreased by 19% of 1975 levels. Spawning stock of Southern bluefin tuna in the Indian Ocean is down about 90%, according to the World Wildlife Foundation (WWF).
Despite the build-up about the first ever meeting between the five regional management groups, at the end of the week long meeting, opinions about the outcome differed depending on whether you asked a conservationist or a meeting organizer. Alistair Graham of the WWF concluded, "we do see this meeting as a failure." According to the WWF 200 officials traveled to the meeting but in the end took "no concrete actions" to stem the depletion of tuna. The chairman of the meeting however, Masanori Miyahara, of Japan's fisheries agency said "maybe the steps we made this week seem small, but this is a big step, a historical step, I think."
Even taking into the consideration the predictability of these different spins, the effectiveness of the RFMOs to manage stocks is routinely questioned. In 2006 the UN Fish Stock Agreement noted that "most RFMOs are not performing impressively in their core duty, which is to achieve the long-term sustainability of fish stocks". Inevitably, some media will mark the Kobe meeting as "momentous", but the "small steps" of the Kobe meeting were hardly unprecedented. The meeting was one in many where hundreds of government representatives discuss tuna conservation strategies, generally with same results. The results are always criticized by conservationists and hailed by whichever countries believe they came out ahead.
There was a two week tuna meeting in Manila last August to discuss fish status in the western and central Pacific Oceans.The Commission for Conservation of Southern Bluefin Tuna (CCSBT) met in Miyazaki in October 2006. There will be a meeting next month in La Jolla, California organized by the the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission (IATTC) to "consider" tuna management options. This is not to be confused with (ICCAT), the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas meeting, which was held in Dubrovnik, Croatia last November, 2006 to decide tuna quotas. There's always another meeting. Tuna stocks continue to decline.
Scientists anticipated the Croatia meeting with a lot of optimism. The ICCAT Standing Committee on Research and Statistics, (SCRS) had just reported that the fishing mortality rate was "more than three times the level which would permit the tuna population to stabilize at the level of maximum sustainable yield." The U.S. and some conservationists thought that the definitive science report would sway participants to cut quotas. But instead of responding with immediate quota reductions and stricter enforcement of regulations, meeting attendees opted for a less restrictive 15 year reduction plan backed by the European Union and favored by Algeria, Turkey, Libya, Tunisia, Morocco, China, Japan, and Korea. Officials at the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) had proposed a stricter reduction and representing the U.S., (standing on some rare high ground) joined conservation groups by reacting with various degrees of disappointment and outrage to the final votes. The WWF called the results of the meeting the "death knell" for bluefin tuna.
It's not that nations don't universally agree that overfishing is a problem that threatens tuna - especially the bluefin. They do. But while scientists generally recommend that fishing quotas be drastically cut to prevent stock collapses, government representatives usually respond to the immediate economic pressures and opt for long term goals rather than drastic reductions. The Dubrovnik meeting succeeded in setting new quotas, from 32,000 metric tons (MT) to a gradual reduction to 25,500 MT in 2010. It also extended the period of designated "off season" for catching bluefin and increased the allowable fish size limit from 10kg to 30kg. The NOAA had argued that the quota should have been reduced to 15,000, and that the off-season rules be made more restrictive. Small fleets complained that raising the minimum fish size hindered their ability to catch small fish.
More substantiative agreements are hampered by differences between the conservation goals of large versus smaller countries, differences in opinion about which fish should be protected and how to protect them, as well as discordance about how to effectively prevent illegal harvesting, both by rogue fisherman as well as nations who flout the laws.
Even though quotas in the last several years were set to 32,000 MT, scientists estimate that the actual catch was closer to 50,000MT. Last year Japan admitted to catching more than it's allowable quotas of bluefin tun, because of a "logistical" error. They then agreed to cuts of 50% of their previous quotas, from 6,000MT to 3,000MT. The Drosvnik meeting established a timeline for the harvest reductions, but didn't set individual country goals. Today Japan announced that they were cutting their quota of bluefin tuna by 23% from 2007-2010.
What the media meant by labeling Kobe a "highly symbolic" location was that Japan consumes over 12% of the world's tuna and the majority of bluefin and somewhere between 25% and over 50% of some some other large tuna species. but one can't help but recognize that international controversy over fishing, is common for Japan where fish is a both a diet staple and a livelihood. Japan also conducts highly controversial "scientific whaling", which circumvents worldwide whaling moratoriums.Japan increases the number of whales it catches each year under the scientific fishing policy. In 1987 they took at total of 273 whales. In 2005 they increased the study sample to 5 sperm whales, 100 Sei whales, 50 Bryde's whales, 222 Northern Minke whales, 856 Southern Minke Whales and 10 Minke whales. In 2007 Japan will add the Humpback whale to it's list. The whales put up a good fight but unfortunately, "they all die while being caught".
While Japan does plunder the fish population, that said, other countries are as negligent in protecting the oceans and as fierce in protecting their immediate economic interests. Oceans carry the quandary of rivalous public goods. A meeting on endangered whales starts next week in Tokyo. 29 Nations plan to boycott the meeting because of Japan's defiance of the whaling moratorium.