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Concerns rise about dwindling supplies of Bluefin tuna in Mexican waters.

Japan is a country that has developed a reputation for promoting overfishing. Therefore, it appeared a little odd when Japan's fisheries agency said in late October that it would consider asking its fish importers to avoid buying Pacific bluefin tuna from Mexico to pressure the Mexican government to take measures to avoid overfishing of this species. Bluefin tuna is known in Mexico as atun rojo.

The Japanese request makes sense, however, since overfishing has threatened supplies of bluefin tuna, and Japan is the largest consumer of this threatened species, one of the principal sources of fish used in the popular sashimi dish.

The Kyodo news agency reported that the Japanese fisheries industry was also expected to propose to countries attending a meeting of the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission (IATTC) in La Jolla, California, in early November that catches of young bluefin tuna weighing less than 30 kg (66 pounds) be reduced by 50% in the eastern Pacific. The IATTC comprises 21 members from Latin America and the Pacific Rim, as well as four cooperating nonmembers. The Latin American countries include Mexico, Belize, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Panama, Peru, Venezuela, and Colombia.

The fishing industry is an important source of revenue for Latin America, particularly countries like Belize where tourism is the other major industry. A large share of the catch is destined for countries like Japan and the members of the European Union (EU). The buyers, however, want to ensure a sustainable supply of fish in the future and have imposed conditions on the selling countries. The EU imposed a ban on Belize this year because the country had failed to crack down on piracy and illegal fishing (NotiCen, Oct. 30, 2014). The EU has since taken steps to lift the ban against Belize.

Japan succeeded in convincing the IATTC members to implement a plan to reduce the catch of bluefin tuna in the eastern Pacific by 45% in 2015 and 2016 relative to the levels recorded in 2010-2012. The plan--drafted jointly by Mexico, Japan, and the US--was approved unanimously by all members of the IATTC.

"According to the scientific data considered during the adoption of this resolution, the recovery of the populations of bluefin tuna is possible, " said Mario Aguilar Sanchez, commissioner of Mexico's Comision Nacional de Acuacultura y Pesca (CONAPESCA). "The evidence is the strong recovery of bluefin tuna populations in the Atlantic Ocean under a similar scheme."

Even with the IATTC decision, Japan is likely to ask its fish importers to consider a reduction in purchases of bluefin tuna from Mexico, as fewer supplies will be available under the new plan.

Bluefin tuna stocks down sharply

Still, the original proposal for a moratorium on imports of bluefin tuna implied that Mexican authorities have not done enough to prevent overfishing of this species in the Pacific Ocean. Statistics from the Japanese fisheries agency suggest that supplies of bluefin tuna in the Mexican Pacific have fallen to the equivalent of 26,000 tons in 2012 from about 80,000 tons in 1995.

Some environmental organizations suggest the situation is worse, with estimates that the supply of bluefin tuna in the Northern Pacific has fallen to 4% of historical stocks.

According to available data, Mexico captured nearly 5,300 tons of bluefin tuna in 2012 in the Pacific Ocean; almost half of the global catch of the species for the year. The majority was exported to the Japanese market.

The Japanese are directly responsible for the increase in the catch of bluefin tuna. Until about 2000, Mexican fishing fleets captured this species primarily to sell to canning operations in Baja California for sale to the domestic market. "However, in the last decade, with the arrival of investors, mainly Japanese, the destination of the catches changed," said a special report produced in 2009 by environmentalist Raul Jesus del Moral-Simanek and marine researcher Juan Guillermo Vaca-Rodriguez at the Universidad Autonoma de Baja California (UABC) in Ensenada. "Currently this tuna is fished, fattened, and exported to the Japanese and US markets, which pay top prices for this species to satisfy their demand for sashimi."

A recent estimate from Japan's fisheries agency put consumption of tuna sashimi in Japan at 300,000 to 400,000 tons annually.

Other experts argue that demand for bluefin tuna is coming from other quarters, including the US and South Korea, where consumption of sashimi is also on the rise. "Other major markets include the United States where an estimated 30,000 to 50,000 tons of sashimi is consumed each year and South Korea where about 15,000 to 20,000 tons of tuna sashimi is eaten annually," researcher David Hayes said in a recent address to the Organization for the Promotion of Responsible Tuna Fisheries (OPRT) in Tokyo.

The Mexican government has become aware of the threat to populations of bluefin and other species of tuna in its waters. In July of this year, CONAPESCA announced a ban on the capture of bluefin tuna for the rest of 2014, in a decree apparently intended primarily for sport fishers.

"In accordance with recent Mexican government regulation revisions, the capture of bluefin tuna (Thunnus orientalis) in Mexican waters is forbidden for the remainder of the 2014 calendar year. Any incidental catches are to be released," CONAPESCA, a division of the Secretaria de Agricultura, Ganaderia, Desarrollo Rural, Pesca y Alimentacion (SAGARPA), said in a statement. "This measure will be strictly enforced by Mexican authorities. Please avoid any fines or penalties."

Yellowfin tuna also under threat

While CONAPESCA at the time did not release any public details about restrictions on Mexico's commercial fishing fleets on the catch of bluefin tuna, the agency announced restrictions on the capture of yellowfin tuna for 2015 to 2017. CONAPESCA said the decision was based on data obtained from satellites and tracking systems, which confirmed that this tuna variety is also on the decline.

Reports from the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) confirm the threat to yellowfin tuna. "According to information collected by the International Seafood Sustainability Foundation (ISSF), the eastern Pacific stock of yellowfin is overfished and some overfishing is occurring in the Indian Ocean," said the environmental organization.

The depletion of stocks in Mexico and elsewhere is also caused by innovations in the capture of tuna. Unlike other species of fish like tilapia and salmon, tuna does not lend itself easily to farming.

"As the methods of catching tuna have improved over the years, the conservation and management of tuna has not evolved as quickly," said the WWF. "According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, most tuna stocks are fully exploited (meaning there is no room for fishery expansion) and some are already overexploited (there is a risk of stock collapse)."

The restrictions on the catch of bluefin and yellowfin tuna could have deep implications for Mexico's commercial fisheries industry. CONAPESCA says that Mexico's total tuna catch amounts to about 130,000 tons annually.

The Mexican fishing industry recently fought a long battle with the US government and environmental organizations, which claimed that fishing fleets were using methods to catch tuna that threatened dolphins (SourceMex, Feb. 20,1991) and Aug. 16, 2000). In 2011, a World Organization (WTO) panel ruled that the practices of Mexican tuna fishing fleets were environmentally sustainable and that the US should allow them to export their product north of the border without having to adhere to the conditions imposed through the US "dolphin-safe" label (SourceMex Sept. 21, 2011).

"Because of its economic value, the capture of tuna is the second-most-important activity for our fisheries industry and an important generator of jobs and revenues for our country," the publication AFMMedios said in a report in March of this year.

Tuna fishing provides economic support for three ports in the Mexican Pacific, which together handle about 80% of the tuna catch. Those ports are Mazatlan (Sinaloa), Manzanillo (Colima), and Puerto Madero (Chiapas).
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Comment:Concerns rise about dwindling supplies of Bluefin tuna in Mexican waters.
Author:Navarro, Carlos
Publication:SourceMex Economic News & Analysis on Mexico
Geographic Code:0PACR
Date:Nov 5, 2014
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