Japanese perspective on Commercial Tuna Fishing

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Posted by on December 24, 2004 at 13:40:35:

Takamitsu KasugaCYukako Fukushi and Yukihiro Nagura Yomiuri Shimbun Staff Writers

It is 5:30 a.m. one day in early December and, though the city is still veiled in darkness, the auction has begun at the Tokyo Central Wholesale Market in Tsukiji. On the block are bluefin tuna--the most popular fish at this time of year.

Large bluefins, weighing more than 100 kilograms each, are placed one after another on the auction stand, their prices set in a flurry of bidding.

It's a typical scene at the Tokyo fish market, but this year fishermen are lamenting the poor quality of the latest catch of Japan's favorite fish, known locally as maguro. Even those from Omamachi, Aomori Prefecture, a town known for high-quality bluefin tuna, complain that the meat on this year's fish is not as firm as in most years. For this reason, prices in late November were about 20 percent lower than in previous years.

Tadashi Izumi, a 63-year-old fisherman from Omamachi, a town on the tip of Shimokita Peninsula, went out to sea immediately after he returned from the Athens Olympics, where he had cheered on his son Hiroshi, a silver medalist in men's 90-kilogram judo.

On Nov. 27, he caught four bluefin tuna, each weighing more than 100 kilograms, including a 220-kilogram one. On Dec. 4, he caught another weighing more than 200 kilograms.

But the fish did not sell for as high a price as he had expected.

"At that time, the water temperature was still around 16 degrees Celsius, so the fish had yet to put on enough fat," Izumi said. "But with temperatures going down recently, the quality of fish is starting to improve."

According to Izumi, top-quality fatty tuna are caught when temperatures are around 11-12 C.

Of 6,600 residents in Omamachi, about 2,600 work in the fishery industry. About 70 percent of those make their living by fishing and trading tuna.

Tuna around Omamachi feed on sauries (sanma) off the Sanriku region of Japan's Pacific coast, building up their strength swimming against the fast currents in the Tsugaru Strait.

Though they put on a lot of fat, their meat is firm, meaning it repels soy sauce even when soaked in it.

Hiroki Fujita, managing director of Fujita Suisan, a brokerage firm in the Tsukiji market, has nothing but praise for tuna from Omamachi.

"The meat (of Omamachi's bluefin tuna) not only tastes and smells good but also it's very soft--everything about it is wonderful. That's why we always want Oma tuna," he said.

Sushi bars and deluxe ryotei restaurants tend to name either Omamachi or Toicho, Hokkaido, a town across the Tsugaru Strait from Omamachi, as the best sources of bluefin tuna.

Omamachi became well-known across the country following the catch of a 202-kilogram tuna on Dec. 30, 2000.

In the New Year's first auction, the tuna sold for 100,000 yen per kilogram, or 20.2 million yen in total--the highest price ever paid for a single tuna.

During the winter, Omamachi is the only place around the Japanese coast where bluefin tuna are caught, giving the town a monopoly in the winter market for the fish. Where the fish normally sell for around 3,000 yen per kilogram until October, prices jump to 10,000-20,000 yen per kilogram toward the end of the year.

For this reason, Omamachi fishermen set sail in the rough winter seas, risking life and limb in the hope of making their fortune in one fell swoop. Many have lost fingers after getting them caught in fishing lines while trying to pull a large fish from the sea.

Despite the danger, it's a way of life they can't give up.

"In winter, I go out for fishing even if the wind is blowing at more than 70 kilometers per hour because it's worth the danger," Izumi said. He added, however, that tuna fishing is possible only until around Jan. 20, after which temperatures fall too low.

While Omamachi fishermen seem to be in good shape, however, the deep-sea tuna fishing industry is having a hard time competing against the lower costs of rivals in Taiwan and other countries.

Even here, Omamachi fishermen may have some hope, however.

Until the early 1970s, more than 50 tons of tuna were caught each year in the seas off the town. For 12 years after 1982, however, no more than a few tons were caught each year. Toughest of all was the period from 1986 to 1990, when less than 0.9 tons were caught each year--less than 1 percent of last year's catch of 109 tons.

There are several theories about the decline of the catch, but nobody is certain what happened.

In the face of these poor catches, Omamachi fishermen traveled as far as the Goto Islands in Nagasaki Prefecture or to Wakkanai, Hokkaido, fishing for squid.

But now the tuna are back.

"We can be proud of Omamachi tuna wherever they are served. They are the best," Izumi said with a broad smile on his wrinkled face. "I will continue to be a 'tuna-only' fisherman."

Even though the tuna is certainly the most popular fish among Japanese consumers, much about its behavior largely remains a closed book.

In January 1998, researchers inspecting tagged fish found that a bluefin tuna caught off the U.S. Pacific Coast that month was the same fish detected off the eastern coast of Hokkaido five months earlier, and off Tokyo Bay three months before that.

Though it had long been assumed that tuna migrate over a vast area, it was the first time this theory had been proved.

But the study also showed that tuna behavior is erratic. Some tuna initially headed away from Japan, only to do a U-turn before reaching the international date line. Though the fish's movements are believed to depend on those of plankton, it remains unclear where or how they search for their prey.

Because so much remains unknown, it is difficult to raise tuna in captivity.

The Tokyo Sealife Park in Edogawa Ward, Tokyo, run by the metropolitan government, is the first aquarium in the country to raise and display the fish in captivity. But aquarium staff members had a hard time after the facility opened in 1989, with many fish dying after smashing into the glass walls of their tank.

After a lot of trial and error, the aquarium now manages to keep its tuna alive for much longer periods than in the early days. Even so, aquarium-reared fish live for barely more than half their natural life span of 15 to 20 years.

In October 1996, six species of tuna were designated endangered and placed on the Red List of the World Conservation Union. Atlantic bluefin tuna are still listed as an endangered species.

"If things stay the way they are today, the fish won't become extinct, but in order for us to continue eating tuna, we have to learn more about them so that we can manage stocks better," said Harumi Yamada, a tuna expert at the National Research Institute of Far Seas Fisheries in Shizuoka.

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