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BIODIVERSITY: Japan Cooks Up New Ideas as Fish Consumption Depletes Stocks

Suvendrini Kakuchi

TOKYO, Sep 14 2010 (IPS) - A processed fish cake, made of a mixture of deep sea fish species pounded into paste and sold either deep fried or frozen, is the brain child of Takuhira Kaneko, head of Act for Company, which trades in fish and located in western Fukuoka city in Japan.

The product is made of unwanted fish usually discarded into trawler nets. Kaneko says he launched the product six years ago in a bid to revive Japan’s fledging fishing industry now reeling from ongoing and possible new moratoriums on endangered fish species and a tough competitive global market that is threatening overseas supplies.

According to the Fisheries Agency of Japan, the country’s fish imports in 1998 reached 3.13 million tonnes and domestic catches 6.68 million tonnes. In 2008 imports of fish declined to 2.76 million tonnes and local catches to 5.59 million tonnes.

Japan’s blue fin tuna imports alone account for three-fourths of the global trade in the highly prized fish. Following reports that the blue fin tuna population had been declining rapidly, Japan came under intense pressure to reduce its high consumption of this popular fish. Yet it has resisted international calls for a ban on the blue fin tuna trade.

“Along with fish cakes we also sell the discarded fish as fresh fillets. The trick is to sell this fish at bargain prices to create a new market, which is our main goal,” says Kaneko. Sales of the new product top 18,000 U.S. dollars monthly.

Kaneko promotes deep-sea fish under his “Save Fish” campaign, an idea he developed to appease his frustration as he watched his business slump annually and to counter what he describes as the lack of ” leadership” from the government.


“The reality today is that fish stocks are shrinking. I am frustrated with the government for ignoring this fact and trying to save the industry by lobbying to all of Japan to continue fishing,” he says.

Kaneko is not the only one who is waking up to the hard truths of Japan’s fledging fish industry.

Last November, Aeon, one of Japan’s leading supermarkets, launched a new initiative to buy and sell fish caught by local fishermen, a project aimed at fostering the local fishing industry and wean the market off endangered species.

“We also sell new varieties of fish,” says Masaru Tanabe, spokesperson of Aeon.

Issei Kurimoto, who runs a small sushi restaurant in the heart of Ginza, one of Tokyo’s most affluent shopping areas, rues, “The era where we could rely on a never-ending supply of fish is ending. It is time to be innovative in order to survive.”

The owner of Sushi Bar says he is resigned to the proposal of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) to ban trade in the Atlantic blue fin tuna after reports showed global stocks had declined to 80,000 tonnes as of 2008 from a peak of 300,000 tonnes in 1974.

“Tuna is extremely popular (in Japan). But now I have been serving sushi topped with a variety of white fish, which is becoming popular, especially among my older customers, who acknowledge its less fatty content,” he says.

The agency’s 2008 annual white paper reported that half of marine resources in waters surrounding Japan faced the risk of falling below sustainable levels. The paper blames the decline on overfishing and warmer sea temperatures, which have adverse effects on spawning.

Despite digging in its heels – Japan is lobbying hard against the CITES proposed Atlantic tuna fishing ban – several steps have been taken to protect the tuna from extinction.

The Fisheries Agency of Japan says Japanese fishermen have been instructed not to catch fish in oceans, such as the Pacific, during spawning periods and have begun to focus on domestically cultivated fish to help the fishing industry stay afloat.

Fuminari Ito, director of the Natural Research Institute of Aquaculture (NRIA), says, experiments on fish farming have yielded breakthroughs, signaling a way forward even if the industry is still dependent on natural fish for feed and needs huge investments to build ponds and defray the cost of heavy water supplies.

“The technology to harvest fish is developing fast. Several species now sold in the market are cultivated fish,” he says. For example, over 80 percent of red sea bream sold in the market is farm-cultivated while 68 percent of yellowtail, an ocean fish, is also locally produced.

But farm cultivation is a fragile process given the vulnerability of young fish to the slightest water contamination, the high prices of fish-based feed, and the high costs of labor and fishing infrastructure.

Ito says the NRIA is now concentrating heavily on developing a new feed that is less dependant on small fish – initially by reducing the current 50 percent requirement to 30 percent – and which will still be palatable to fish in the farms, which, he says, “are very particular about what they are fed.”

But conservationists argue that this is exactly why Japan should impose a ban on fishing of endangered species of fish such as tuna as a crucial step toward marine protection. That option, however, opine officials and traders, will only be taken as a last resort.

 
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