Japan Poised to Lead on Fisheries Oversight in Pacific

Action to fight illegal fishing and increase use of electronic monitoring can improve sustainability in region

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Japan Poised to Lead on Fisheries Oversight in Pacific
 Three men in baseball caps, visible only from above, are examining dead swordfish—silvery in color and laid out on a concrete floor with their signature swords cut off. There are about a dozen fish on the floor, each about four to five feet long.
Prospective buyers examine swordfish for sale at the Kesennuma fish market in Japan. The country, a major importer of fish, is taking efforts to improve fisheries monitoring, which can help fight illegal fishing, protect non-target species and improve sustainability.
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Managing and tracking the catch and transfer of fish in even a portion of the ocean is a huge and daunting task, one that falls to governments and regional fishery management organizations (RFMOs) around the globe. To succeed, they need the right data gathering and fishery monitoring tools, access to current science and knowledge of what’s happening throughout the seafood supply chain. Further, responsible fisheries management is key to the health of the ocean and fish populations, and to coastal communities and their economies.

For example, fisheries in the Pacific Ocean are the source of most of the world’s tuna supply and are worth billions of dollars in tuna sales annually. In recent years, Japan—where the fishing and seafood sectors are both culturally and economically vital—has emerged as a regional leader in fisheries management, championing best practices and adopting sophisticated monitoring technologies.

Electronic monitoring offers tools to shine light on Pacific fisheries

This includes a willingness to adopt newer approaches, such as electronic monitoring (EM), which includes computers and cameras that record activity on vessels and relay information to central databases. EM can complement on-board human observers, the numbers of which dropped precipitously during the COVID-19 pandemic.

On-board observers and EM are important tools for fisheries managers because of how hard it is to manage a fishery without accurate, up-to-date data on what’s happening on the water. EM and observer coverage also help lower the incidence of illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing. Realizing this, Japan has taken key steps to increase use of EM technology within fisheries and thus is providing an important example for other governments in the Pacific region. 

In a webinar last year, hosts The Pew Charitable Trusts, BirdLife International and Japan-based conservation firm Errhalt Consulting highlighted Japan’s role in expanding use of these technologies.

Among the unintended consequences of commercial fishing is the accidental catch or entanglement of seabirds, something fishers might pay more attention to if they know they’re being monitored. “Limited observer coverage and electronic monitoring has led to many common bird species being threatened with extinction globally,” said BirdLife International’s Yasuko Suzuki. “EM is key to reduce seabird bycatch, IUU fishing, and human rights violations.” Increasing the use of EM would also “build transparency.”

Japan is taking efforts to improve fisheries oversight

Recent reports show EM is especially appropriate on tuna longline vessels, for which most RFMOs require 5% to 10% human observer coverage (meaning at least that percentage of the fleet must have an observer on board). Other large scale commercial fleets, such as purse seines, require 100% observer coverage.

Increased observer coverage and monitoring programs offer a way to expand oversight to fleets and allow for stronger, data-driven management for target and non-target species alike. Japan—one of the world’s largest fish importers—has begun EM trials on its distant water and offshore longline fleets in the Atlantic and Pacific. These trials have proved promising in successfully collecting catch and bycatch information, including on discards. Japan’s leadership in implementing EM could have significant influence on RFMO policies and international seafood markets.

Vessel owners and captains can use this technology to accurately track and report catch, bycatch and fishing effort, and demonstrate compliance with RFMO rules, fishing company regulations and seafood sourcing policies—including by meeting criteria for ecolabel certification, which allows companies to meet consumer demands for more sustainable seafood products.

Gakushi Ishimura, a 2021 Pew marine fellow and professor of resource economics and policy at Iwate University in Morioka, Japan, emphasized during the webinar that “data transparency and sustainability in fisheries will likely lead to better profits for fishers. Japan can lead the way in creating sustainable fisheries worldwide if they ensure transparency.” Masanori Miyahara, a special adviser to Japan’s minister of agriculture, also reiterated the importance of effective monitoring of foreign and domestic fleets, and how this can positively affect domestic markets and improve the long-term health of fish populations.

The webinar comes on the heels of progress that several RFMOs made this and last year towards electronic monitoring standards and transshipment reform. But governments and RFMOs must do more to protect fish stocks from IUU fishing and overfishing. Japan is in a unique position to serve as a benchmark for fisheries sustainability in Asia, particularly through its efforts to bring technology into management.

Numerous stakeholders in international fisheries have technological and administrative work ahead to ensure accurate and reliable implementation of EM tools. But by championing increased observer coverage in Asia while demonstrating the positive economic and conservation benefits of that coverage, Japan could inspire other countries to pursue similar efforts to improve the quality and sustainability of their fisheries.  

Raiana McKinney is a senior associate at The Pew Charitable Trusts. Gunther Errhalt is the founder and head consultant at Errhalt Consulting.

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