New technology in farm raising bluefin tuna will help preserve wildstocks

An international conference of a subcommittee of the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission started this Monday in Fukuoka. The conference, held to discuss fishing controls on bluefin tuna, is being attended by representatives from eight countries, including the United States and South Korea, as well as Taiwan.

In 2010, the commission decided on fishing controls for young tuna aged up to 3 years old, and cut the catch to below the levels logged from 2002 to 2004. The focus of the ongoing conference is whether this restriction should be tightened further.

The primary reason for the declining stocks is said to be the overfishing of young tuna that have yet to breed. Currently more than 90 percent of bluefin tuna caught in the Pacific Ocean are young fish.

On the opening day of the conference, Japan proposed that the catch of young tuna be reduced by more than 15 percent from the mean value for the 2002-04 period. The United States, however, called for a 25 percent cut, leaving a wide gap in the two countries’ positions.

Other fishing countries such as South Korea oppose an across-the-board fishing limit. Negotiations are likely to face tough going until Thursday, the final day of the conference.

Japan is the world’s largest consumer of Bluefin tuna, annually consuming over 80% of the world catch.   The fish is a highly prized delicacy  all over the world, but particularly in Japan, is a sushi and sashimi menu staple. However, tuna stocks have been in rapid decline over the last 50 years as standards of living have risen. Bluefin tuna is to be found in every supermarket, sushi bar and restaurant in the country, this increase in availability to the consumer has come at great cost to the fish itself. The breeding stock of tuna in the Pacific, which was estimated at 130,000 tons around 1960, dropped by over 80% to 23,000 tons as of 2010. The Western and Central Pacific Fisheries commission last month compiled a report that warned this figure could fall below 18,000 tons in the near future.

With about 40,000 tons of bluefin tuna, also known in Japan as hon maguro,  supplied annually to the Japanese market from around the world, including the Pacific. It is clear that this rate of consumption is rapidly becoming unsustainable.

As the main consumer, Japan must make a clear position and take responsibility for future management of the remaining blue fin tuna breeding stock. The Japanese government also needs to boost its cooperation with other nations to crack down on violators of current regulations. If tuna fishing restrictions are successfully put into action and adhered to, the overall supply will drop and the market price will soar. Bluefin tuna will once again become a luxury food item rather than a daily staple. In fact may be the only way to preserve the species and allow stocks to replenish.

To prevent this from happening it is vital to increase the supply of farmed tuna. The conventional method of culturing young tuna caught in the wild in a growing pen actually ends up depleting wild stocks. However, Kinki University has found a solution to this problem, by completely farm-raising bluefin tuna. This technology involves raising artificially hatched larvae to adults, collecting eggs from them and artificially hatching those eggs to create the next generation. The fish are farm-raised in all stages without requiring wild stock.

The Fisheries Laboratory launched research in completely farm-raising bluefin tuna as far back as 1970.  According to the laboratory success has taken over 30 years as bluefin tuna are delicate fish and little was known about their habitat. The key to successful breeding was to consistently monitor the fish. In the research process, it was discovered that the artificially hatched fry died suddenly. Therefore, various steps were taken to ensure an appropriate environment for cultivation. Eggs were then harvested from the fish once reached to adulthood, which completed the life cycle.

Now that the technology is there, both public and private sectors need  to combine to further develop technology to expand the scale of “comprehensive culturing”. In this way tuna has a chance of remaining a staple of our trip to the sushi bar.

Sources: The Yomiuri Shimbun,  Kinki University

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