Taiwan-Japan Pact: Bad News for Bluefin

Conservationists and fishery experts are deeply worried that an early April pact in which Japan granted Taiwan generous fishing rights in the waters surrounding the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands could spell the extinction of the phenomenally valuable bluefin tuna in the region.

The islands are administered by Japan but are subject to competing claims by Japan, China and Taiwan. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's government is said to have thought up the fishing pact to prevent Taiwan from teaming up with China, which reacted with predictable outrage about the agreement.

Although the Taiwan-Japan fishery agreement contains a clause against overfishing, activists and fishery experts charge that it is toothless.

"Of course fishery resources are more abundant in areas the Japanese had closed off to the Taiwanese, as Japanese fishing boats usually did not operate there," said Du Yu, a Taiwanese expert with the Chen-Li Task Force for Agricultural Reform. "If the Taiwanese government doesn't constrain its fishermen, the survival of the bluefin could well be affected."

Taiwan, he said, has never conducted the kind of systematic research on high-priced fish in that area such as is needed to effectively enforce the anti-overfishing clause and protect the bluefin, sometimes called the Ferraris of the ocean because of their ability to swim at enormous speeds across vast expanses. They command astonishing prices. In January, Kiyomura Corp. which operates the Sushizanmai sushi restaurant chain, paid ¥700,000 (US$7,939) per kilogram for a 222 kilogram fish.

In 1996, Japan enacted its Law on the Exclusive Economic Zone and the Continental Shelf, claiming an exclusive economic zone (EEZ) covering the disputed islands. At that point, Taiwanese fishing boats were forbidden from operating near the islands and were occasionally boarded and impounded by the Japanese. Japan and Taiwan conducted 16 talks over the matter that went nowhere because Japan refused to concede anything important.

However, after the Senkaku/Diaoyu dispute blew up last year, steering Japan and China toward the brink of war, the 17th round somewhat miraculously produced handsome goodies for the Taiwanese. Under the terms of the agreement, Taiwanese and Japanese trawlers can now operate freely in a 74,000-square kilometer area around the islands, which, as Taiwan's President Ma Ying-jeou proudly remarked, equals an area double the size of Taiwan's landmass. It includes 4,530 square km that were previously rigidly closed off by the Japanese. The deal coincides with the beginning of the lucrative bluefin tuna season, although the waters are also rich in yellowfin tuna, sailfish, bonito, sharks and dolphinfish (the latter are fish, not dolphin).

Some 800 Taiwanese fishing trawlers can be expected to annually operate in the designated zones covered by the agreement. Even before the pact came into being, Taiwanese fishermen were catching more than 40,000 tonnes of fish annually there.

That Greenpeace is alarmed is hardly surprising.

"Since there was no specific mentioning of how to 'prevent overfishing' in the agreement, we are worried that the expansion of the fishing ground will bring great pressure to the resources in this region," said Yen Ning, oceans campaigner at Greenpeace East Asia.

The statistics that Yen provided to Asia Sentinel with tell volumes, suggesting that marine conservation agreements Taiwan signs are hardly worth the paper they are written on. No sanctuary whatsoever has been set up by the Taiwanese Fishery Agency in the region off Taiwan's east coast county of Yilan, which covers also the Senkakus/ Diaoyus.

While the target species there are mackerel, bluefin, marlin, skipjack, shark and mahi mahi, the sole regulation set by the Taiwanese is for the mackerel catch. Over the past 10 years, Greenpeace has observed gross violations against the regulation's annual 40,000-tonne catch limit. For example, 59,162 tonnes of mackerel were pulled out by Taiwanese fishermen in 2010 and 95,310 tonnes in 2011 - more than twice the limit.

"No law enforcement is in place," Yen said.

What this hands-off approach does to the marine life in Taiwan's own coastal waters is ugly. The fish stocks are steadily being depleted, a situation Du Yu describes as the "tragedy of the commons." Individual fishermen exploit a common-pool resource for their own interests to the long-term detriment of the group, and "this phenomenon together with serious pollution is turning Taiwan's coastal waters fast into a dead zone," he said.

Research conducted by National Taiwan Ocean University supports such bleak assessment. The maximum length of mackerel caught near Taiwan decreased from 43cm in 2004 to 37cm in 2012. Recently it has fallen toward the 25 cm-mark, an indication that the mackerel population is under tremendous fishing pressure, and is forced to reproduce at a much younger age, from 2 years to one year old.

At least as shocking is the steep decline of the bluefin tuna. A study by the International Scientific Committee for Tuna and Tuna-like Species in the North Pacific Ocean has shown a 96.4 percent decline in Pacific bluefin since the 1950s, which is clearly reflected in the catch in Taiwan's coastal areas. In 2000, fishermen caught 3,097 tonnes, while in 2011, the catch fell to a mere 316 tonnes.

This comes as also vast areas of the southwestern Pacific have been nearly denuded of tuna by greedy fishing fleets, and amidst warnings by conservationists including the World Wildlife Fund and Greenpeace that five of the eight tuna species are at risk of extinction, with three bluefin species among them.

Nowhere on the horizon is the major rethink needed to save the East China Sea's waters around the Senkakus/ Diaoyus from a massive unchecked Taiwanese trawler fleet. Quite the contrary, Taiwan this year again marks the annual start of the bluefin tuna season with gaudy tourism festivals and pop concerts, while the local media has again been abuzz with the windfall the first tuna has created for the fisherman who caught it.

That Taiwan's fishermen are popping the corks in anticipation of another heyday is something they can give Japanese Prime Minister Abe particular credit for, and it is left to be seen whether marine life conservation will come to the Japanese leader's mind despite the political trouble he faces over the East China Sea dispute.

Still, according to Du Yu, Tokyo and Taipei could sort it out if they only wanted. In his eyes, that is illustrated by the matter that the Japanese government, through clever laws, forces its own fishermen to establish highly successful self-regulatory cooperatives.

"The Taiwan-Japan fishery pact must go further than the designation of zones. Follow-up cooperation must be strengthened, including on resource surveys and the management system," Du Yu said.