About the SA Blog Network



Field notes from the far reaches of exploration
Expeditions HomeAboutContact

Challenges Facing Japan’s Marine Fisheries

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

Email   PrintPrint

by Molly Sullivan

For thousands of years, the sea has served Japan as a cultural and economic resource. The Japanese have made heavy use of the ocean surrounding their island nation, harvesting a host of marine organisms from sea cucumbers to whales.  However, in recent decades the ocean has become a resource at risk, with the onset of climate change, overfishing and other threats. While management plans have been adopted for several fish stocks, species such as the blue fin tuna face collapse. As of 2009, 42 of Japan’s 84 fish stocks were categorized as low by the country’s Ministry of Fishing, Forestry and Agriculture. (Statistical Handbook of Japan 2012).

While fisheries depletion is a global issue, it is especially relevant in Japan where seafood consumption is staggeringly high. 23% of the average Japanese person’s protein intake comes from the ocean, almost 3 times that of the average American.  As a nation, Japan consumes 7.5 million tons of seafood annually (Balfour et. al 2011). Tokyo is home to the world’s largest fish market, where roughly 2300 tons of seafood is sold daily for an average profit of $15.5 million.  The largest marine fisheries in Japan are tuna, bonito, sardines, Alaskan Pollock, crabs and squid (Statistical Handbook of Japan 2012).

The degree of depletion varies from species to species, but the fishing industry has seen a net decline in recruitment and profits in the past two decades.  In 2011, the total catch was 3.8 million tons, considerably less than the 6 million tons caught in 1995. Financially, the industry has also suffered. Reported earnings were 1.5 trillion yen in 2011, down from 1.6 trillion in 2006 (Statistical Handbook of Japan 2012). Overfishing is largely the cause of this decline. The increased use of powered trawlers and other gear innovations paired with a growing demand for seafood has resulted in the overexploitation of marine resources. In addition, development has led to destruction of seagrass beds, crucial habitat for coastal species (Makino 2011).

The fishing industry suffered further blows after an earthquake and tsunami hit Japan in March 2011, followed by the subsequent meltdown of the Fukushima nuclear plant. In the Iwate prefecture alone, the tsunami cost the fishing industry $1.3 billion in damage, wrecking fishing vessels and fish processing plants (Balfour et al 2013). Fearing radiation from the nuclear plant, countries such as China and Korea banned seafood exported from Japan in the weeks following the tsunami. It took a month before fish sales finally recovered. In April 2012, researchers from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute reported that elevated levels of radiation were still present in fish caught off the coast of the Fukushima plant. In October, they announced that 40% of fish from the area still contained unsafe levels of radioactive cesium. In January 2013, a fish was caught that contained 2500 times the legal amount of radiation (Mosbergen 2013).

Even without damage from natural disasters, fish stocks across Japan are still at risk. The species that has garnered the most media attention for its threatened stock and high economic value is the Pacific Bluefin tuna. Japan’s Bluefin fishery has declined dramatically in recent decades, with some scientists estimating that their current stock is only 4% of its original un-fished population (Jolly 2013). As the consumer of 80% of the world’s Bluefin tuna (Foster 2013), Japan is largely responsible for this decline.  Most Bluefin are caught by large purse seining vessels that indiscriminately catch fish of all sizes and ages, including juveniles.

A chef poses with the head of the $1.76 million tuna auctioned off in Tokyo in January (Kimimasa Mayama / EPA 2013).

A chef poses with the head of the $1.76 million tuna auctioned off in Tokyo in January (Kimimasa Mayama / EPA 2013).

The high market value of Bluefin has contributed to its popularity and subsequent decline. In January 2013, a single fish was auctioned off for $1.76 million (Foster 2013). While tighter regulations have been implemented as called by the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission, they have not been strictly enforced in Japan. Ties between the government and fishing industry, a largely apathetic media and sushi-craving public have not helped the situation. Japanese fishermen see little need to stop fishing the Pacific Bluefin as fishing boats from Taiwan and South Korea take from the same stock (Foster 2013).

While the Bluefin tuna stock faces collapse, Japan has been able to successfully manage several of its smaller, more localized fisheries. At the local level, fisheries are governed by Fishery Cooperative Associations (FCAs), organizations of local fisherman in a given region that establish their own catch limits and no-take areas. While the federal government sets the Total Allowable Catch (TAC) for most species, the FCAs decide the quota distribution and access rules, usually based on the recommendations of fisheries scientists (Makino 2011).

The FCA style of management has proven successful in monitoring small-scale fisheries such as that of the snow crab and sea cucumber. After the snow crab stock in Kyoto prefecture declined in the 1970s from overfishing, the Kyoto Bottom Trawlers Union, a subset of the regional FCA, collaborated with researchers from the Kyoto Prefectural Agriculture, Forest and Fisheries Technology Center to set up permanent marine protected areas in mating and spawning grounds and seasonal no-take zones.  Stricter minimum size limits and gear restrictions were also imposed. These measures proved successful and the snow crab fishery was awarded a Marine Stewardship Council certificate in 2008.  The success of the management plan was due to the cooperation of the snow crab fishermen who were heavily invested in reviving the stock. Snow crab is the most lucrative bottom trawler species and is considered a winter delicacy and tourist attraction in Kyoto (Makino 2011).

A similar management success story is the regulation of the sea cucumber fishery in Mutsu Bay. Dried sea cucumber is popular in both Japan and China, with 50% of the stock staying in Japan while the rest is exported to the Hong Kong seafood market. The fisheries is regulated by the Council for Promoting Sea Cucumber Resource Utilization which regulates size and catch limits as well as dredge vessel traffic. They have also worked with fisheries researchers to build artificial reefs made of scallop shells to restore cucumber habitat. The management model has been successful but the sea cucumber fishery still faces the threat of illegal poaching (Makino 2011).

While single species management is the most popular approach to fisheries management in Japan, ecosystem based management is practiced on the coastline of Japan’s Shiretoko peninsula, which was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in July 2005. It is a highly productive area that supports marine mammals and birds, as well as commercial fisheries such as squid, Pacific cod, Atka mackerel and walleye pollock. An integrated marine management plan was adopted that identified indicator species to monitor. These species include the Walleye pollock, Pacific cod and Stellar sea lion (Makino 2011).

A whale is caught by a Japanese boat (AFP 2012).

A whale is caught by a Japanese boat (AFP 2012).

The Walleye pollock is commercially important and is also the main prey of the Stellar sea lion. Fishermen must record the body length of each catch. In addition, there is a limit on how many fishing vessels are allowed in the area. Territorial disputes with Russia have made it more challenging to monitor the Walleye stock as both Russia and Japan harvest the fish but do not coordinate their catch limits.  Another threat to the World Heritage site as a whole is climate change, which has resulted in the decline in the seasonal sea ice that makes the peninsula so productive.  Scientists are currently developing adaptive management strategies and a climate change monitoring program for the ecologically and economically important area (Makino 2011).

While the management of some Japanese fisheries has garnered international praise, Japan has come under harsh international criticism for continuing to harvest whales. The International Whaling Commission banned commercial whaling in the Southern Ocean Whaling Sanctuary in 1994. Japan has found a way around this ban by claiming it harvests whales for research purposes and then sells the by-catch to consumers. However, the IWC science committee found that the “research” conducted by Japan has achieved very little. Meanwhile, an estimated 500 tons of whale meat have been stockpiled as only 5% of the Japanese population still consumes whale meat. Adding to the controversy is the fact that taxpayer money has been spent on whaling. A study conducted by the International Fund for Animal Welfare found that around $400 million in taxes has gone to Japan’s whaling industry in the past 25 years, money in recent years that could have gone to support rebuilding after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami (Ryall 2013).

Japan’s whaling industry continues to face opposition from environmental groups. The Sea Shepherd conservation group has resorted to physically confronting Japan’s whaling fleet at sea. Measures against the whaling ships have included attempts to damage propellers, targeting refueling ships, and using smaller ships to get between harpooning ships and their prey. The battle has become increasingly violent, with whaling ships retaliating with water cannons and concussion grenades. While Sea Shepherd has physically prevented Japan from harpooning whales in a handful of these encounters, nothing has changed on the legal stage. The U.S. Court of Appeals recently ruled that the actions of Sea Shepherd constituted piracy and Japanese whaling is still permitted under international law. Australia is currently working to change that law and recently submitted a case to the International Court of Justice to ban Japanese whaling (Bryan 2013).  It seems unlikely that Japan will stop whaling anytime soon.  The country’s fisheries minister vowed in February that Japan would never stop hunting whales because of its importance to Japanese culture (Willacy 2013). However, public sentiment towards whaling is not what it once was, with 54% of Japanese indifferent to whaling and only 11% supporting its continuation (Ryall 2013).

From overfishing to climate change and natural disasters, the 21st century has brought more than a few challenges to Japan’s declining marine fisheries. Controversies over whaling have not helped the fishing industry’s international image.  In order to stay afloat in the changing global and political climate, the Japanese will have to adopt more sustainable fishing practices before it is too late. Japan has been able to implement management strategies for localized fisheries. However, its cultural history of seafood consumption and the economic value of the fishing industry are major obstacles in saving species such as the Pacific Bluefin tuna. Major policy changes and drastic shifts in public opinion and behavior will be necessary as Japan moves forward.

Author Bio: Originally from Westport, MA, Molly Sullivan is currently a rising junior pursuing a B.S. in Environmental Studies at the University of Southern California. As an avid recreational diver with a passion for marine conservation, Molly is looking forward to gaining her scientific diving certification and learning more about environmental management practices in Guam and Palau.


Balfour, F., Matsuyama, K. , and Biggs, S. (2011). A Grim Future for Japan’s Fisheries. Bloomberg Businessweek. Bloomberg L.P. Web. 7 March 2013.

Foster, M. (2013). Bluefin May Be on Brink of Collapse; Japan’s Appetite Isn’t. Japan Times. Web. 10 March 2013.

Foster, M. (2013). Japan Bluefin Tuna Sells for Record $1.76 Million. The Associated Press. Web.  9 March 2013.

Japan Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communication. Statistics Bureau. (2012). Statistical Handbook of Japan, Chapter 5: Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries.

Jolly, D. (2013). Pacific Tuna Stocks Have Plummeted, Scientists Warn The New York Times. 15 March 2013.

Makino, M. (2011). Fisheries Management in Japan: Its Institutional Features and Case Studies. Vol. 34. Netherlands: Springer.

Mosbergen, D. (2013). Fukushima Fish With 2,500 TimesThe Radiation Limit Found Two Years After Nuclear Disaster. The Huffington Post. Web. 15 March 2013.

Ryall, J. (2013). Study Sinks Japan’s ‘scientific Whaling’ Program. Deutsche Welle. Web. 20 March 2013.

Willacy, Mark. (2013). “Japan’s Fisheries Minister Claims Japan Will Never Stop Whale Hunt.” ABC News. Web. 19 March 2013.

Editor’s note: Scientific Research Diving at USC Dornsife is offered as part of an experiential summer program offered to undergraduate students of the USC Dana and David Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences through the Environmental Studies Program.   This course takes place on location at the USC Wrigley Marine Science Center on Catalina Island and throughout Micronesia. Students investigate important environmental issues such as ecologically sustainable development, fisheries management, protected-area planning and assessment, and human health issues. During the course of the program, the student team will dive and collect data to support conservation and management strategies to protect the fragile coral reefs of Guam and Palau in Micronesia.

Instructors for the course include Jim Haw, Director of the Environmental Studies Program in USC Dornsife, Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies David Ginsburg, Lecturer Kristen Weiss, SCUBA instructor and volunteer in the USC Scientific Diving Program Tom Carr and USC Dive Safety Officer Gerry Smith of the USC Wrigley Institute for Environmental Studies.

Previously in this series:

The 2013 Guam and Palau Expedition Begins
A New Faculty Member on the Team
An Analysis of Sargassum Horneri Ecosystem Impact
Marine Protected Areas and Catalina Island: Conserve, Maintain and Enrich
Northern Elephant Seals: Increasing Population, Decreasing Biodiversity
The Relationship Between the Economy and Tourism on Catalina Island
Guam and Palau 2013: New Recruits and New Experiences
Bringing War to the “Island of Peace” – The Fight for the Preservation of Jeju-do
Dreading the Dredging: Military Buildup on Guam and Implications for Marine Biodiversity in Apra Harbor
Is the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands Doing Enough?
The Status of Fisheries in China: How deep will we have to dive to find the truth?
The Philippines and Spratly Islands: A Losing Battle
The Effects of Climate Change on Coral Reef Health
The Senkaku/Diaoyu Island Dispute in the East China Sea
The UNESCO World Heritage Site Selection Process
Before and After the Storm: The Impacts of Typhoon Bopha on Palauan Reefs
An interconnected environment and economy- Shark tourism in Palau
A Persistent Case of Diabetes Mellitus in Guam
Homo Denisova and Homo Floresiensis in Asia and the South Pacific
Investigating the Effectiveness of Marine Protected Areas in Mexico Using Actam Chuleb as a Primary Example
Okinawa and the U.S. military, post 1945
Offshore Energy Acquisition in the Western Pacific: The Decline of the World’s Most Abundant Fisheries
Military Buildup’s Environmental Takedown

About the Author: Dr. Jim Haw is Ray R. Irani Professor of Chemistry and director of the Environmental Studies Program in the USC Dana and Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. He is also a scientific, technical and recreational diver.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

Rights & Permissions

Comments 1 Comment

Add Comment
  1. 1. kujirakira 9:44 pm 06/27/2013

    Oh really, when did SS ever stop ICR from whaling?
    It’s kinda sad when a blog claiming to be Scientific uses a reality tv show as a source.

    “Meanwhile, an estimated 500 tons of whale meat have been stockpiled as only 5% of the Japanese population still consumes whale meat”

    5000 tons actually. There’s also 180,000 tons of pork, 70,000 tons of beef, and 900,000 tons of seafood (including the 5000 whale). If we’re to believe your specious logic, taken straight from Animal Rights Propaganda without even bothering to check the facts, we’d have to believe Japanese don’t eat seafood.

    The 5% statistic comes from Greenpeace, and it’s quite evident the author didn’t even read the source. Again, quite sad when an interest group that makes up their own statistics is cited as a source in a scientific blog.
    Other (unbiased) surveys have demonstrated that upwards of 75% of Japanese eat whale meat.

    “A study conducted by the International Fund for Animal Welfare”

    Again, another Animal Rights Propaganda group. Not scientific at all.
    The Associated Press’ unbiased yearly Gfk poll gives very different numbers than the Animal Rights groups.
    Namely, 52% favor whaling; 35% don’t care; 13% oppose whaling.

    “As the consumer … Japan is largely responsible for this decline”

    This is simply passing the buck. You catch the tuna, you take their money, and then you point the finger. As a Democracy, Japan can’t tell restaurants to refrain from purchasing legally caught tuna. If they did, you’d then be demonizing them for restricting free trade.
    It’s the same with the Atlantic Bluefin. Europeans control their own quotas, Europeans overfish them using subsidized fleets, and Europeans take all the money — but when it comes time for blame, they point the finger at Japan. Even though Japan has no control on quotas for the Atlantic Bluefin. Europeans do.
    Blaming Japan is exactly what the countries fishing tuna to extinction want. It belies that at the heart of this so-called “conservation” is really just a desire to demonize foreign cultures.
    Getting back to the Pacific Bluefin, Japan voluntarily reduced their own quota by 60% and has led the way in farming bluefin tuna. Japanese government is interested in — and takes appropriate actions towards — conserving the stock.
    Europeans, Australians,New Zealanders? They just want the money, and the ability to point the finger at Japanese when the species has been hunted to extinction.
    Another thing not mentioned is that those bluefin auctioned off for high prices at the beginning of each year — they’re caught in the Tsuruga straits with single-line fishing. It’s also interesting that nobody has thought to ask why the Bluefin Tuna caught in Japanese waters are still so large while the size is decreasing globally. In other words, you should be lauding them for sustainable practices instead of demonizing them.
    And you should be asking your own governments why they keep their quotas above scientific advice and not allow them to point the blame elsewhere for their own choices.

    Finally, getting back to whaling – with all the discussion on declining fisheries, it seems all the more relevant to resume full commercial whaling under the Revised Management Plan.
    RMP is a science-based methodology for determining quotas that is extremely risk averse and has virtually 0 threat to conservation of whale stocks.
    And at the same time quite capable of bridging the gap in marine fisheries. The tail is also lauded as an excellent replacement for high-grade bluefin tuna, which could help to reduce the pressure there specifically.

    But as we all know, fisheries management from a Western Perspective abhors science. So Japan will continue with their research program to prove that the temporary moratorium is not scientifically justified.

    Link to this

Add a Comment
You must sign in or register as a member to submit a comment.

More from Scientific American

Email this Article