Japan As the Atlantic Bluefin Tuna's Savior

09/08/2010 07:08 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Since the world decided earlier this year at the triennial CITES meeting to continue overfishing the Atlantic bluefin, the prospect of the fish's long-term survival remains grim. Catch limits, which do exist on paper, remain meaningless so long as individual fish continue to fetch upwards of $100,000 at auction. The bluefin, unfortunately, is incredibly profitable: the Japanese market alone is worth billions, and the fish is part of a global trading network that extends from Cape Cod to the Mediterranean to Tokyo fish markets.

Two particular features of the Atlantic bluefin market exacerbate the situation. The first is the classic commons problem, in which multiple fisherman have access to the same finite resource. In the case of the Atlantic bluefin, the fish's annual migration takes it through many national waters as well as the high seas, in which any nation is free to fish. This provides each fisherman with the incentive to take as many bluefin as possible, else another fisherman will catch them instead.

The second salient feature of the Atlantic bluefin market is Japanese demand. Though its fisherman catch only a small percentage of the fish, roughly 80 percent of the Atlantic bluefin catch ends up in Japanese markets. This presents a huge misalignment of incentives. Japan, the primary consumer, has little ability to control bluefin fishermen (and thus the size of the bluefin catch). Conversely, those nations that do fish the Atlantic bluefin treat it primarily as a cash export business; their lack of domestic demand for the bluefin results in little pressure to conserve stocks.

These two features -- the commons problem and Japanese demand -- create dual externalities: fisherman do not internalize the costs of protecting the dwindling stock (through purchasing licenses or quota, or paying for reasonable regulation), and thus Japanese consumers pay less than the market costs of a sustainable catch. This results in increased supply and lower prices -- not exactly a path to conservation.

In a healthy, sustainable market, equilibrium is achieved when the price of a good includes the costs associated with its production. In the case of the Atlantic bluefin, that cost is the price at which overfishing can be curbed, be it through fisherman buyouts, the enforcement of quotas, or the mothballing of fleets. Thus, in order to best protect the bluefin, Japan must pay for -- and thus have a primary role in -- Atlantic bluefin conservation. Yet the market as it exists results in the exact opposite, and in fact minimizes the role Japan can play. This, like current catch levels, is unsustainable.

Instead of vilifying Japan, conservationists -- primarily in the European Union and the United States -- need to engage with it, and accept that any real attempt to conserve the Atlantic bluefin necessarily involves active Japanese participation. This engagement can be accomplished in several ways.

First, Japan must be much more active in setting total allowable catch limits. At present, the decision is made by ICCAT, an international consortium of around fifty fishing nations that sets quotas but has zero enforcement power (and is thus dubbed, by critics, as the International Conspiracy to Catch All Tuna). Because Japan is just one vote out of fifty, it can tacitly accept whatever quotas the bluefin-exporting nations agree to and continue to blithely import the fish. If on the other hand Japan had a greater role in setting catch sizes, it would itself be forced to make the decision, instead of punting it to those nations that have less concern over the bluefin's long-term survival.

Second, Japan could be given greater control over the fishing market by eliminating market controls (which exist in the form of ICCAT quotas granted each year to bluefin-fishing nations). Already, several large Japanese companies control much of the bluefin importation business; Mitsubishi alone is believed to control upwards of 40 percent of the market. By allowing these Japanese corporations to fish and not just import, they should then harvest so as to ensure long-term profitability -- instead of simply importing every fish for sale. While critics might cry out that such a move would be akin to selling the Serengeti to big game hunters, they must note (a) that the current regime is in no way working, and (b) that such a move better aligns Japanese demand with the bluefin's long-term survival.

Finally, the U.S. and the E.U. -- which together fish over half of the annual Atlantic bluefin catch yet which both supported a total ban on its trade -- are in the best position to work with Japan on creating a system in which it takes on increased stewardship of the Atlantic bluefin. Not only do the U.S. and E.U. have greater political will to take on their own fishing industries (which play an increasingly incrementally smaller role in their economies), but they also have the resources to alleviate the pains produced by any large-scale change in the bluefin industry (notably the reduction in bluefin fishing in the less-developed world).

Since the opening of the Japanese sashimi market in the 1970s, the population of the Atlantic bluefin has crashed. So long as Japan remains a passive importer, this trend may well drive the fish to extinction. Engagement -- and a re-linking of Japanese demand to the actual harvesting of the fish -- seems the only way to ensure the bluefin's long-term survival. Whether through diplomatic cajoling or free market reforms, Japanese engagement remains critical. Instead of portraying Japan as the bluefin's enemy, conservationists must instead accept Japan's importance in the market and encourage it to become the bluefin's savior.