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Still hooked: time runs out for Japan's dangerous obsession with the bluefin

Sunrise is at least an hour away when Atsushi Sasaki steers his fishing boat out of Oma and into the notorious straits separating Japan's mainland from its northernmost island, Hokkaido.

By the time he reaches the open water of the Tsugaru Strait Tsugaru Strait (tsgä`r), c. , the wind has turned into a gale and the waves grow higher with every assault on the bow (Naut.) on that part of the horizon within 45° on either side of the line ahead.
- Totten.

See also: Bow
 of his boat.

But Sasaki, a wiry wir·y
1. Resembling wire in form or quality, especially in stiffness.

2. Sinewy and lean.

3. Filiform and hard. Used of a pulse.
 61-year old with a crewcut crew·cut or crew cut  
A closely cropped haircut.

[So called because it was worn by rowers.]
 and the teak teak, tall deciduous tree (Tectona grandis) of the family Verbenaceae (verbena family), native to India and Malaysia but now widely cultivated in other tropical areas.  complexion of an inveterate inveterate /in·vet·er·ate/ (-vet´er-at) confirmed and chronic; long-established and difficult to cure.

1. Firmly and long established; deep-rooted.

 fisherman, is unfazed un·fazed  
Not fazed or disturbed.
: even the discovery that the coolbox containing his lunch is now flooded with seawater seawater

Water that makes up the oceans and seas. Seawater is a complex mixture of 96.5% water, 2.5% salts, and small amounts of other substances. Much of the world's magnesium is recovered from seawater, as are large quantities of bromine.
 is accepted with a shrug. For now, his concern is directed solely at his prey: the bluefin tuna.

Global stocks of the highly prized fish have plummeted by 90% in the last 30 years, and much of the blame rests with Japan, by far the world's biggest consumer. Every year the Japanese get through about three-quarters of the world's bluefin catch; 80% of tuna caught in the Mediterranean ends up on the Japanese market.

Faced with the imminent collapse of bluefin stocks, fisheries officials from 45 countries are meeting in Morocco this week to discuss bluefin quotas for the Atlantic and Mediterranean next year. Conservationists want a moratorium, but Japan is reportedly about to support a scientific panel's recommendation that the quota be set at 15,000 tonnes, about half the current level.

But while attempts are being made to rescue bluefin tuna populations in seas thousands of miles away, nothing is being done to prevent Japan's appetite for tuna sushi and sashimi from ripping through stocks along its own coastline.

But Sasaki is not part of Japan's overfishing Overfishing occurs when fishing activities reduce fish stocks below an acceptable level. This can occur in any body of water from a pond to the oceans. More precise biological and bioeconomic terms define 'acceptable level'.  problem. Rather, he could be the solution. There are no trawler nets or lines coiled in heaps on his boat (named, with incidental irony, Man'yu, or Ten Thousand Tuna). He is one of barely 200 ippon-zuri fishermen around Japan, who catch tuna sustainably using a combination of a rod and line, a basic sonar and occasional luck.

The former salaryman sal·a·ry·man  
A Japanese corporate businessman.

[Anglicization of Japanese sarariman, salaried man : Englishsalary + Englishman.]
, who quit his office job 20 years ago to lead the life of an itinerant fisherman, is a regular visitor to Oma, one of just three places in Japan where the method survives.

In an attempt to prevent the tradition from dying out and to protect local stocks from being fished into oblivion, the local authorities have assigned the Tsugaru Strait for the exclusive use of Oma's 60 rod-and-line fishermen.

The move has met with mixed results. The ippon-zuri have become embroiled em·broil  
tr.v. em·broiled, em·broil·ing, em·broils
1. To involve in argument, contention, or hostile actions: "Avoid . . .
 in a row with longline long·line  
A heavy fishing line usually several miles long and having a series of baited hooks.

 fishermen who violate the exclusion zone by using baited lines often several miles long. Elsewhere, trawlers, equipped with sophisticated sonar, plunder TO PLUNDER. The capture of personal property on land by a public enemy, with a view of making it his own. The property so captured is called plunder. See Booty; Prize.  coastal waters, aided by the absence of official quotas and collusion between politicians and the powerful fishing lobby.

High fuel prices, lower profit margins and stricter quotas in other parts of the world have created an irresistible urge for Japanese boats to take more bluefin from their own waters. And all the time demand is growing, not only in Japan, the US and Europe, but increasingly in China and Russia.

"Japan's fisheries have no idea how many tuna they are catching or what size they are," says Sasaki, in the smoke-filled cabin of the Man'yu. "The smaller tuna have all been caught, along with the fish they feed on, and unregulated fishing with trawlers is to blame."

Faced with official diffidence dif·fi·dence  
The quality or state of being diffident; timidity or shyness.

Noun 1. diffidence - lack of self-confidence
self-distrust, self-doubt
 and scant popular enthusiasm for conservationism, Sasaki is spurred on by relatively low operating costs and the knowledge that he is playing a small part in a nascent interest among the Japanese in sustainable sushi.

"We need proper stock management," he says. "Collapse is just around the corner."

The bluefin tuna caught off Oma, a town of 6,000 people on the northern coast of Aomori prefecture, are seen as the tastiest in Japan and typically fetch twice as much as imported fish at auction. In 2001, a 202kg (445lbs) Oma bluefin sold for a record ¥20.2m (£141,400).

The yearly average catch for Oma is 2,500 tuna, worth about ¥1.6bn (£11m) to the local economy. This is tiny compared with a few decades ago, says Hirofumi Hamabata, head of the town's fishing cooperative. "After the war, each boat returned with about half a dozen tuna every day," he says. "They were so cheap you'd have to sell 4kg of fish just to be able to afford a pack of cigarettes."

Akihiro Furukawa, a longline fisherman for 13 years, admits he fears for the future: "My son wants to follow in my footsteps, but by the time he's old enough to go to sea, there won't be any fish left to catch."

In the Tsugaru Strait it is usual to see 150 boats fishing for tuna. Today, though, the weather has put most fishermen off. And after several hours at sea on an empty stomach, Sasaki is ready to call it a day. As darkness descends on Oma, another ippon-zuri fisherman who has had better luck returns. Watched by groups of children, six tuna weighing up to 100kg are unloaded and packed into wooden vats of crushed ice, ready be driven to the Tsukiji market in Tokyo before dawn. The fish may well fall under the gaze of Toichiro Iida, a wholesale trader who seeks out Oma tuna at auction. His family firm, Hicho, has been in business for almost 150 years.

He says many of his fellow traders know nothing about the provenance of their tuna."They're just happy to buy the cheaper fish and make easy profits, but to do that they have to buy tuna that has come off a trawler," says Iida, who counts Tokyo's best sushi chefs among his clients. "Even some sushi restaurateurs don't know Don't know (DK, DKed)

"Don't know the trade." A Street expression used whenever one party lacks knowledge of a trade or receives conflicting instructions from the other party.
 if their tuna is caught using nets or by more sustainable methods," Iida says. "It is about time they learned."

Backstory back·sto·ry  
1. The experiences of a character or the circumstances of an event that occur before the action or narrative of a literary, cinematic, or dramatic work:

The Japanese eat 600,000 tonnes of tuna a year - about a third of the total fished worldwide, and about three-quarters of the total bluefin fished worldwide. In 2006, Japan mported 44,000 tonnes of bluefin, just over half of it from the east Atlantic and Mediterranean. According to the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tuna, which meets in Marrakech this week, about 61,000 tonnes of bluefin tuna were caught in these seas last year - more than double the permitted catch of 29,500 tonnes. The commission has set a target of 25,500 tonnes by 2010, but many experts believe this should be nearer 15,000 tonnes. The Blue Ocean Institute's guide says bluefin tuna should be avoided altogether. Some restaurants, such as the Moshi Moshi chain in the UK, have removed bluefin from their menus. Justin McCurry
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Date:Nov 18, 2008
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