A Way to Get Off the Hook?
There's a new source of the succulent and much-coveted belly flesh of the bluefin tuna, called chutoro in Japanese: farmed fish harvested at Kinki University in western Japan. In 2009, the university sold 40,000 of these "Kinki maguro," which are the culmination of decades of complex and delicate research designed to satisfy the ravening demand of Japanese consumers. Retailers claim that the tender pink flesh of the farmed variety is just as tasty as that of its wild, ocean-caught brethren.
Farm-cultivated bluefin is a cause for celebration, particularly at a time when Tokyo is at loggerheads with conservationists and Western nations that blame Japan for the serial overfishing that has caused bluefin stocks to dwindle.
"Farmed tuna is the way to go," says Hiroko Takeda, a public relations official at Mitsukoshi Department Store. On Fridays, Mitsukoshi's Nihonbashi branch sells farmed bluefin tuna sashimi, with chutoro priced at around ¥2,000 per 100 grams, not that much more expensive than the imported variety.
Sushi lovers have watched with gloom as one of Japan's national gourmet dishes grew increasingly expensive over the past few years. The big blow came when the extremely popular fish emerged as the center of international controversy in 2008. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITIES) debated a ban in trade in the Atlantic bluefin tuna this June, pitching conservationists against Japan after reports showed stocks had declined to 80,000 tons from a peak of 300,000 in 1974.
Japan imports four-fifths of the expensive Atlantic bluefin that ranks as the most expensive variety of sushi, with a single large fish fetching up to ¥8.3 million at auction. Naturally, Japan is digging in its heels and lobbying hard against the CITIES move. In November 2009, Japan barely managed to stave off a similar proposal that was voted on at the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas, although participating nations did agree to reduce their catches.
But the fight is not over. Critics see the Japanese government's resistance to a bluefin ban as putting commercial market interests ahead of conservation.
Still, there are signs that government officials here realize time is not on their side. In August 2010, the Fisheries Agency took the unusual step of instructing Japanese fishermen not to catch fish in the Pacific and other oceans during spawning periods. "We’ve taken steps to conserve bluefin tuna," said an agency official, who declined to be named.
NOBODY ON DECK
Criticism from international conservationists is not the only thing dampening national enthusiasm for protecting the domestic fishing industry. Official statistics indicate the population of professional fisherfolk is aging – the average age is now over 60 years – and their numbers have dipped dangerously, from 200,000 just two years ago to 110,000 now.
The Fisheries Agency's 2008 White Paper also reveals that half of the marine resources in the waters surrounding Japan may fall below sustainable levels. The paper blames the decline on overfishing and warmer sea temperatures that have had adverse effects on spawning. The agency also reports that imports of fish in 1998, including shellfish, came to 3.1 million tons, and the domestic catch was 6.7 million. In 2008, imports stood at 2.8 million tons and the domestic catch totaled 5.6 million.
The fishing industry has also begun to take steps to survive these lean
times. "It's a case of sinking or swimming now," explained Takuhira Kaneko, head of Act For Company, a Fukuoka-based seafood merchant.
Kaneko had watched his sales fall annually because of various international moratoriums and depleted ocean fish stocks. Five years ago he took action, launching the Mottainai (What a Waste) campaign, which involves using large quantities of unpopular fish caught in fishing nets that fishermen usually throw away because they do not bring much income.
This, says Kaneko, is a waste. "I decided it was time to do something with this fish." One result is a processed fish cake, made of a mix of deep-sea fish species pounded into paste and sold either deep fried or frozen. Income for his company from these products is now around $27,000 every month.
"Along with fish cakes, we also sell the discarded fish as fresh fillets. The trick is to sell these fish at bargain prices to create a new market, which is our main goal," Kaneko explains.
Other companies are also waking up to the hard truths of Japan's fishing industry. Aeon, one of Japan's leading supermarket chains, embarked on a new initiative last November to buy and sell fish caught by local fishermen, a project aimed at fostering the local fishing industry and pulling the market away from endangered species.
"The era where we could rely on a never-ending supply of fish is ending," laments Issei Kurimoto, who runs a small sushi restaurant in Ginza, one of Tokyo's most affluent shopping areas. "It is time to be innovative to survive." Kurimoto says he now serves more white-fish sushi, which is becoming especially popular among my older customers who appreciate its less fatty content.
TIME TO GROW YOUR OWN, JAPAN
The big thrust now, both for the government and Japan's fishing industry, is to expand supplies from domestically cultivated fish as the solution.
Fuminari Ito, director at the Natural Research Institute of Aquaculture, states that fish farming experiments have yielded breakthroughs, signaling a way forward even if the industry faces difficult issues such as its overwhelming dependency on natural fish for feed and the need for massive investment to build ponds and maintain water supplies.
"The technology for harvesting fish is developing fast," Ito explains. "Several species now sold in the market are cultivated fish." For example, over 80 percent of the red sea bream sold in the market is farm cultivated, while 68 percent of yellowtail, another popular species, is also produced locally.
Eel, another delicacy in Japan that is especially sought after in the summer when eating the fish is thought to boost energy, is now being cultivated as well. Japan's eel market is heavily dependent on farm cultivation that takes baby eels from their natural habitat, so a recent breakthrough by researchers at Mie University that develops eels from eggs is promising, especially since imports from Taiwan and China comprise 12,000 tons annually – roughly 40 percent of the local market.
As researchers point out, however, farm cultivation is a fragile process: baby fish are vulnerable to even slight water contamination. Fish-based feed is costly, too, as are labor and infrastructure such as ponds.
Ito says his research now concentrates heavily on developing a new feed that is less dependent on small fish. Initially he is attempting to reduce the 50 percent currently needed to 30 percent while keeping the fish in the farms happy.
"They are very particular about what they are fed," he notes, adding that if a breakthrough is made, the discovery will be a magic wand for the future.
Conservationists argue that this is exactly why Japan should also consider a ban on fishing of endangered species such as tuna as an important alternative to protect marine resources. According to officials and traders, however, that option is the last resort.
Suvendrini Kakuchi is a Sri Lankan journalist reporting for Inter Press Service, an international wire service, and is also a regular commentator on Asian issues for Japanese publications and television.