Japan blamed for "squeezing Mediterranean dry"
John de Boer (University of Tokyo & GLOCOM Platform)
On 26 August an article appeared in a prominent Spanish daily named El Pais which accused the Japanese sushi industry of "squeezing the Mediterranean dry". For over 2,000 years the Blue Fin Tuna has been the most prized species in the Mediterranean and according to environmental NGO's such as the World Wildlife Federation (WWF) and Greenpeace, Blue Fin Tuna stocks are facing a critical situation. Their warnings are based on data compiled in 1998 by the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tuna (ICCAT) which indicates that "the Blue Fin Tuna population in the Mediterranean has dwindled to 20 percent of its 1970 size". ICCAT further estimates that there is a 90 percent chance that the species will phase out in as little as 10 years if the new farming and fattening techniques used to satisfy the Japanese sushi market is not regulated.
While Sushi and Japanese food in general continues to gain in popularity in Spain and throughout Europe, its fishing practices are coming under increasing scrutiny as of late. Criticism is most severe in north and north eastern Spain along the Atlantic, in parts of the Basque country and in Cantabria, whose fishing population practically lives off of tuna fishing. According to the President of the Federation of Basque Fisherman, Esteban Oliazola, catches in his region have dropped by 50 percent in the past four years and he warns that, "without tuna, the fishing industry in the Gulf of Vizcaya will not survive". Fisherman in that part of Spain place the blame on new fishing techniques that have been put in place in Murcia (south eastern Spain along the Mediterranean) since 1996 to serve Japanese tastes.
This new tuna farming technique is based on capturing wild tuna and placing them in cages where they are fattened to improve the oil content to meet Japanese standards. The reason why this is controversial is because this production method is officially classified as "aqua-culture" or breeding in captivity. However, the fact of the matter is that the tuna is captured in the wild only to be fattened and killed, not to breed. As a result, there is no accountability as far as fishing quotas are concerned.
Japan has been placed in the spotlight because several Japanese companies have been identified as playing a key role in developing and exploiting this new fattening technique. According to the El Pais, Murcia has become the farming Mecca of the world accounting for over half of the world's supply of fattened tuna. Currently, in Murcia there are seven tuna farms and four more are in the works and Maruha, Mitsui Bussan and Mitsubishi Shoji have been linked to these farms. Maruha is reported to own 39 percent of Spain's Viver Atun, Mitsui has a 39 percent stake in Tuna Grasso and Mitsui owns 49 percent of Atunes de Levante. Furthermore, Japan reportedly imports 98 percent of all local production in Murcia. While companies such as Mitsui praise the new farming techniques as having "made a great effort to ensure very high quality tuna will arrive in Japanese homes at affordable prices", their practices have caused several prominent NGO's and significant fishing populations to turn against them.
These groups do not want Japanese companies to stop their activity in the region, the issue is that their new fattening practices need to be regulated. Nevertheless, a public statement of the group which represents the companies mentioned above (Fuentes Grupo), denied any wrong doing claiming that, "companies in the tuna fattening business are performing legal activities, abiding by the law and protected by it". The fact of the matter is that this is true. As was indicated earlier, under current laws the new Blue Fin Tuna fattening techniques are classified as aqua-culture. Perhaps this is where the problem lies. Nevertheless, with income from this mode of production representing 3 percent of Murcia's GDP, there is also little political will in that autonomous region of Spain to change the classification.
If Tuna fish stocks continue to dwindle, several Japanese companies and the prized cuisine of Japan could end up embroiled in a tough environmental, political and economic debate with severe consequences for Japan's already tarnished environmental image abroad. If things continue as is, the prized Blue Fin Tuna will eventually be eliminated from all sushi plates around the globe.