Casting Our Nets Too Wide

Back to Contents of Issue: April 2005

Increased pressure on farming practices is required to ensure sashimi grade tuna is available to sate palates in Japan and elsewhere.

by Bonnie Lee La Madeleine

An early morning trip to the famous Tsukiji fish market is a standard part of any tourist's visit to Tokyo. This market has been an integral part of Japan's identity for decades and was until recently a critical player in the distribution of Japan's daily supply of fish. It is also an important keystone for several industries. One is the lucrative, if problematic, tuna fishing industry. Tsukiji market auctions off a significant portion of the sashimi grade tuna (toro).

Behind the veil of this quaint market can be found a complex web of interests supporting the acquisition and distribution of sashimi grade tuna.

We like tuna. Tuna -- fresh, frozen or canned -- is a staple in diets around the world and, thanks to recent, overly optimistic findings on the health benefits of the Omega-3 fatty acids found in fish like salmon and tuna, these fish are becoming increasingly integral to the diets of people in developed nations. The popularity of tuna loin and sashimi is growing internationally and has nearly doubled in the United States over the past few years. In 2004 over 100,000 tons of tuna loin was shipped Stateside. Even our pets are developing finicky preferences for better quality tuna -- a preference we freely indulge.

Therefore, fisheries love tuna. With annual revenues for canned tuna alone exceeding $2 billion, this infatuation is understandable. Bluefin is the largest of the various tuna species caught and marketed annually. Bigeye, skipjack, yellowfin, and abalcore enjoy large and growing markets, but bluefin, which can reach three meters and weigh over 650 kilograms, still has the most appeal. A single live bluefin of high meat quality averages \250,000 but, depending on the marbling of fat and market demand, could be significantly higher.

Drawn by those potential profits, an increasing number of nations, companies and researchers are developing more efficient technologies to improve catch quality and size. Yields and profits have increased with advances in longline fishing and tuna-ranching technologies. Tuna has become a billion-dollar industry with successful synergies on either side of the tuna value chain -- so successful that some experts predict the tuna market's collapse and the Atlantic bluefin's commercial extinction within a few years.

A meeting to determine the true state of bluefin tuna stock and develop better management strategies of that species will be held this April in Fukuoka. Members of the ICCAT (International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tuna) will meet from April 20 to 23 to air concerns about the overfishing of tuna that led to the current oversupply in Japan. They also hope to set an agenda for farming management to protect both the ocean and the tuna.

The stakes are clear. If bluefin tuna is in jeopardy because of farming practices, then farming will need stricter regulations to ensure that other tuna species do not suffer the same fate. But can this meeting accurately access these questions and develop a solution that all stakeholders will abide by?

The False Promise of Aquaculture
Tuna farming, under the guise of "aquaculture," arose from efforts to increase tuna supply to the Japanese market. Aquacultural practices seek to find ways to domesticate the production of marine resources in order to increase yields without further depleting the wild marine resources -- an eco-friendly way to get fish and seafood to market. More than 220 species of finfish and shellfish, including shrimp, sardines, and smaller species, have successfully been transformed into viable industries, predominantly in Asian nations. China is the current leader in aquaculture. Farming salmon is also possible. However, aquaculture has begun to raise concerns, especially with regard to practices involving carnivorous species that are higher on the food chain and cannot be fully domesticated.

"All aquaculture causes some pollution of the water," says Dr. Peter Miyake, the leading expert in tuna farming. "Tuna is no exception."

In fact, several reports issued last fall reflect increasing concerns about aquaculture-induced pollution, contamination, and risks of disease. Rex Dalton, writing in the September 2004 issue of Nature, cited pollution-related issues at salmon pens in Canada and diseases stemming from tuna farming in Mexico. Increased farming of tuna feed has also led to the rapid viral infection of sardines in Mexican waters. A rapid die-off of sardines could put increased pressures on these tuna farms. In September, the Ad-vanced Tuna Ranching Techno-logies(ATRT), a fisheries trade organization based in Spain, cited pollution, waste management and disease as increasing concerns for tuna farming.

Tuna fishing and farming
Traditionally, tuna has been harvested using longline, pole-and-line and purse-seine fishing. The last traps a school of tuna and hauls the entire group into the boat, alive. While all have commercial markets, purse seine farming is best for toro because the tuna can remain alive for longer periods and be delivered to market fresh.

Tuna farming developed out of purse seining or deep-sea netting. Introduced in Canada over 40 years ago as an alternative to the wasteful operations of net and longline fishing, tuna farming only became the dominant practice after technological advances made the process profitable in the late 1990s.

Once the method became commercially viable, all risks were cast aside. Competitors (longline and pole-and-line fishing fleets) were successfully marginalized and barriers to entry cleared. For six years, tuna farmers have reaped significant profits. The business strategies of many tuna farms are textbook examples of finding and exploiting a market need. Tuna farming is a vertically integrated oligopoly with high, inflexible costs (maintaining fleets, labor and high quality feed). Survival depends on capturing a sufficient amount of tuna to cover these costs.

Contrary to what "tuna farming" implies, this process does not attain any domestication of tuna. Live tuna are captured in large nets, towed to an offshore pen and fattened up to get the oil content required for the Japanese market. Approximately 10 percent of the catch will die during the towing process.

Successful aquacultural farming of herring and sardines has developed into support industries for tuna farming by supplying tuna feed. Fish farms (whether domesticated or more like tuna ranches) are the largest market for fish oil and meal to feed its livestock.

The farming of omnivorous and carnivorous marine species taxes resources for feeding. Bluefin tuna are finicky, voracious eaters. They eat only live bait. Therefore, aquaculture production of smaller pelagic fish, herring and sardines, is required to sustain these farms. Carnivorous finfish metabolize carbohydrates poorly, so the amount of fish biomass required exceeds the amount of food that they produce. Producing one kilogram of tuna requires up to five kilograms of fish protein.

Producing sufficient feed is a growing concern. A virus now threatening the Mexican farmed sardine stocks has started to spread across the oceans, infecting wild species. Without a reliable source of feed, competition between tuna farmers for resources will intensify. Scientists in several nations are calling for increased regulation of all farming practices to prevent similar disease concerns elsewhere.

The Japanese Table as Prime Mover of Fisheries Technology
Peter Miyake reminded me that the development of the tuna industry is nothing to marvel at. The export of Japanese technology has spurred the development of capelin, sea urchin, shrimp, flounder, sea bream, eel, perch and many other industries. "Initially, those products were imported to the Japanese market, but many of them later also found markets in other parts of the world. The economic contribution by Japan to the world, particularly in fisheries, is enormous. Compared to all of these, tuna farming success is very minor."

There are several stages in this process of technology transfer, starting with a testing of the waters, followed by a nurturing of new industries that expand market demand, first in Japan. Once the Japanese market is saturated, international expansion begins. Tuna farming is now in the final stages of this process.

Profitable industries with successful business models invariably attract competition. The number of nations that have established tuna farming has also expanded. From 1985 to 2002, the number of nations supplying sashimi grade tuna increased by 38.5 percent, according to the Organization for the Promotion of Responsible Tuna Fisheries (OPRT), an international group committed to developing a sustainable and socially responsible fishing industry. Seventy nations sold 306,500 tonnes of tuna to Japan in 2002. Only 33 nations were supplying Japan with tuna in 1985. Most of the new exporters to Japan are tuna farmers. This indulgence is starting to extract a costly toll on all stakeholders.

The health of the market and the stocks
The success of tuna farming in supplying fatty tuna to the Japanese market has highlighted concerns about the lack of industry regulation. According to the September 2004 report by the ATRT, "the medium to long-term viability of the Mediterranean Bluefin tuna fishing and ranching industry is condemned to virtual biological and commercial extinction after another 'one to [sic] much' unsustainable 2004 May-July fishing season."

Dr. Miyake believes that the overall condition of tuna resources is not as dire as extremists would claim. Most tuna species are harvested at sustainable levels, for the time being. If systems can be developed to ensure that tuna can be harvested with less effort at sustainable levels, there is little cause for concern. Nonetheless, in that report and in the World Wildlife Foundation report, he stated that these controls are not in place.

Miyake stressed that international regulations can effectively deter illegal and uneconomic practices, but without them tuna poaching and illegal catching of immature tuna before the age of reproduction are real threats to stock sustainability. One solution would be to find an effective way to track legally captured tuna at the time it is penned to keep illegal tuna from entering the market. This would prevent other tuna from facing the same threat and create market efficiencies. This is the effect of tuna farming on resources. Miyake would like to see more transparency and a registration system for legal farming.

Uneconomic practices and illegal fishing sales contributed to a market glut of toro. Each bluefin tuna consumes between three to five times more biomass than it provides to market, creating large protein inefficiencies and increasing costs of maintaining stocks of live tuna. Yet, more relevant, as the 2004 season opened, over 14,000 tons of sashimi grade bluefin tuna from the 2003 catch were unsold.

The Japanese market is saturated. Economics will drive down the price of the tuna as long as supply remains high. While this is a short-term benefit for consumers, the financial pressures on the farming industry as a whole are mounting. The average price per kilo of toro grade tuna has dropped from 7.5 Euro to 3.5 Euro and the retail price in Japan has dropped nearly 60 percent. When combined with an approximate increase in operating costs of nearly 3.4 percent, a stronger yen, and overextended financial obligations of many of the independent tuna farms, several of the farms are likely to miss their financial obligations. While Japan's tuna industry is not based on farming, Japanese trading houses support nearly all of the successful farms. This fact offers a potential basis for a mechanism for increased control over the industry, although it also creates a national monopoly on tuna farming.

Most tuna species are not endangered; however, commercial farming of skipjack and yellowfin has begun. This increases competition for coastal space for the farms. Unlike whaling, which is limited in market and industry, a moratorium on tuna is not yet required, nor would it be practical. The scale of the industry is too large. However, increased pressure on farming practices is required to ensure that toro is able to sate refined palates in Japan and elsewhere. Hopefully the conferees at the April 2005 meeting of bluefin tuna fisheries in Fukuoka can find a solution for managing marine farming that satisfies all vested interests without creating the sharp polarities currently dividing other conservationist agendas. @

Note: The function "email this page" is currently not supported for this page.